Following on from a piece I did recently looking at how NHS staff have been affected by Covid, it seemed only natural to look at students. Education has been hit hard by the pandemic. In March, schools were closed through lockdown and teaching was moved online. Now as I write this we’re in a second lockdown before Christmas, and although institutions have stayed open this time, the disruption to learning – whatever age – cannot be ignored.
Not only does Covid hit students hard now, it is worrying for their futures - specifically the topic of job prospects. I also did a piece about graduates in Covid, which you can read here.
BBC Panorama found that people aged 16-25 were more than twice as likely to have lost their job compared to older workers, and more than half saw their earnings fall.
Not only this, Panorama highlighted the class difference by showing that students from poorer backgrounds have fallen behind their more privileged peers.
A survey by the London School of Economics found that 2.5 million children had no schooling or tutoring during the first lockdown. To top it off, it added that 74 per cent of private school pupils had full days of teaching, whilst this only covered 38 per cent of state school pupils.
The study warns it could lead to poorer pupils suffering "permanent educational scarring" when it comes to key academic milestones such as exams and securing a university place.
As well as the impact on education and future prospects, it has raised questions around free school meals. Marcus Rashford is one of the shining lights of 2020 – leading the way in a fight against chil food poverty by making sure underprivileged schoolchildren are able to have access to free meals over the holidays.
School closures not only meant that children were going without ‘normal’ education, they were losing the lifeline of a hot school meal, which for many is the only proper meal they’ll get all day.
Clearly this is a huge problem, and one that creates lots of other secondary problems for both
the present day, and in the future.
I spoke to students of all ages to see how Covid has impacted them…
Katie – GCSEs
Katie was learning from home for six months, something she found difficult.
“There was no structure or timetable to the online learning. I really struggled with it. I do not like using laptops as a resource to learn. I missed the face-to-face contact and the feedback from teachers. I felt very isolated and overwhelmed by the situation and I feel I have missed a lot of learning.”
Katie has her mocks coming up and she’s already worried that her grades will be lower than needed for the next steps due to the chaos caused to her education. As well as disrupting the present, it has thrown her into uncertainty for the future too.
“I missed my work experience placement and I’m unable to look at colleges or even request a prospectus as they are not sending them out. I am a bit worried about my grades and I am also worried that the GCSE exams might not happen at all.”
In terms of feedback, Katie said that school is back up and running now which is obviously a good thing but she wishes that the online learning from home had been better. Rather than teachers setting work, she thinks live online lessons would have been more beneficial, and this is where schools differed.
“I wish the online learning had been better. Some schools did this really well but my school didn’t.”
James – A levels
James said when college closed and moved online, a lot of students couldn’t attend and complete work that was set for a number of reasons, so many have fallen behind.
“College turned to online lessons and it was a learning curve not just for the students but the teachers as well. This meant that not all students joined the online lessons due to many reasons - living conditions can be a struggle and material deprivation could be a key explanation as to why only half of students attended lessons during the first lockdown.”
James’s college moved to a structure of alternating weeks and splitting the students – something James believes will put him at a big disadvantage to other smaller sixth form students who are in lessons every day. He also touched on how difficult it is working from home on your own compared to a classroom situation.
“Being stuck at home rather than going into college is much less motivating and draining.”
James’s exams got cancelled and he got his predicted grades. Now he is at the point of applying for university, but he can’t go and see any on open days – it’s all virtual now.
“This will put people off going to university and it’s a huge decision. You don’t want to get wrong, so deciding it though the university websites and virtual tours is far from ideal.”
He’s also concerned that when he does get there, the experience is going to be much different due to a potential lack of social events that people go to university for (alongside the studying aspect of course!)
James is expecting a lot of people to try and retake the year due to the issues they’ve faced.
“This school year is going to be a struggle for everyone concerned, but you have just got to get on with it and try your best. I think many students will retake the year. Unless the government tell exam boards to alter or delay the exams for more than two weeks – which personally I think has no impact on things – then yes, a lot will retake the year. Predicted grades are another possibility but who knows what will happen in the future.”
Although he thinks things should have been handled better, James admits that ‘hindsight is a great thing’.
Jenny – University fresher: Journalism
Jenny’s A level exams were cancelled and although she was disappointed at first, she changed her mind about it all.
“On first finding out that my A Levels would be cancelled I was admittedly quite upset and felt that all my hard work was going to waste, but actually as I considered the pros and cons of the situation, I realised that being assessed by my work throughout the year is in fact a much fairer method of judging a student’s capabilities. I found that many fellow students agreed that to have the exam stress taken away was a really positive thing.”
Equally, Jenny allowed herself to make the best of a bad situation when it came to learning from home.
“Emotionally I found the pandemic a lot easier than I expected. Without the structure of college I thought I would really struggle, but once I created a routine that included running, reading and taking time for myself without the stress of revision, I found it to be an enjoyable time.”
Jenny is now nearing the end of her first term of university - a very different experience to what I would have had as a fresher due to the restrictions around social events and societies.
“For a while we did have a blend of face-to-face teaching and pre-recorded lectures which I really enjoyed as it allowed me to have the typical in-class experience whilst also being able to choose the time and pace for remaining online lessons.
“However, it has now gone entirely online and if I am honest, I am struggling. It is particularly difficult to engage with a lesson when you are in your bedroom with temptations such as your phone, which for me is the only learning space I have as I am living in halls. I look forward to a time when we can learn in person again, but for now I understand that this is entirely for our safety so I’m planning to try my best and keep going!”
In terms of the future, Jenny worries that job prospects just aren’t going to be there.
“I try to keep the mentality that everybody is in the same boat and therefore this isn’t something I am having to face on my own, but it certainly feels like a disadvantage compared to perhaps past year groups.”
Jenny does wish that there was more regular and clear guidance of what was going on. Often the national news comes out, and then how her universtiy are giving a response days later – a delay that just increases anxiety for students as they’re often left quite in the dark around what’s going on.
Although Jenny can appreciate the government have had to deal with something brand news, she does acknowledge that some things could have been handled differently.
“Although there has been a focus on students, I think we can often be seen as an annoyance or something that has to be dealt with rather than the next generation, particularly when considering the images I have seen of the ‘precautions’ taken at the University of Manchester. Mental health should always come first and foremost, arguably above physical health.”
Dee – University third year: Teaching
Dee's degree involves placements embedded throughout, something that has obviously been disrupted by Covid too. She can’t do any of the practical work, which as a trainee teacher is incredibly important.
“This year my stress levels have gone up slightly due to workload, but tutors have been very helpful offering tutorials where possible. This year has put an emotional strain on my mental health, due to the large Impact that Covid has had on my personal life as well as my studies.
“Up to now my placement is still going ahead, it lasts 11 weeks and I should take responsibility of at least 75 per cent of teaching. But if the schools have to close we will do online teaching.
“I am slightly worried about the future as I do not know where I could end up due to schools been cautious about taking on trainees in the current climate. My plans are the same – I plan on getting a job for September, but now it is just a waiting game and deciding if I mind moving away from home again.
“My university has handled everything well and sent us emails about any updates or information at least once a week. They have offered a lot of support to every student.
Yes, the government could be doing better now as it has been around for a long time but there isn’t anything we can do about it. I think people should just follow the rules put in place and trust this will work and ensure the safety of themselves and others.”
Charlie – University placement year: Business and finance
Charlie is currently on his placement year working in business consultancy, a placement he worked very hard to get. However due to restrictions, he’s been on furlough for the last month.
“As far as practical impact goes, I have missed out on one month of a 12-month placement. It’s already a short period of time so losing a month isn’t great, consequently I have lost out on progressing in my work placement role.
“I am happy with how things are progressing; furlough is nothing but a small set back. Many people are far worse off as a result of the pandemic so I have nothing to complain about.”
Charlies feels things could have been handled much better by the government.
“The government has struggled with handling the virus – from not implementing the use of masks quickly enough, to allegedly handing out multi-billion-pound PPE contracts to unproven private companies in order to receive backhands.
“The unclear messages and rules from the government haven’t been helpful say the least. As well as this, the favouritism toward London throughout Covid has been appalling. If London is bad we will go into national lockdown, but if just the north is bad we will just implement local restrictions.”
Emma – University master’s: Agroforestry and food security
Emma is based in Wales, meaning that she’s following different Covid rules to her loved ones in England. Studying has moved online for too, which isn’t great for Emma’s course which relies on being outside a lot.
“My course should be very practice based – going out to farms and experiencing it in action. However Covid has meant my practicals have been moved online in a very basic way through learning case studies. Also, next year the course usually has a whole month where we travel to Ireland and Scotland to assess agroforestry but it's not clear whether this can go ahead which is disappointing.
“For a course where most of my learning should be outside, I am mainly sat at my desk so it is frustrating that I am paying the same fees as normal even though I am not getting the level of experience I want and need.”
As well as this, Emma is wanting to build up her CV with more work experience to help her ultimately secure a job next year, but the restrictions means that these placements simply aren’t available.
The impact of Covid spreads further than just the course though. As with so many students, Emma is away from home and lacking the social quality that university usually brings.
“Emotionally, Covid has created a lot of uncertainty which I’m sure everyone is feeling. When the Welsh lockdown ended it was announced that England was then going into lockdown which was upsetting to hear as I didn’t know when I’d be able to go home or see my boyfriend. It also made me question whether students would be allowed home for Christmas, which luckily has now been allowed.
“For my housemates it has also been difficult to feel like we are doing anything other than studying all the time because you can’t go and socialise. Also as a side note, my housemates are finding dating really difficult, university can be one of those chances to meet someone (that's how I met my boyfriend), so restrictions and having to date online is making this harder which has often upset my housemates, understandably.
“I am very lucky that I have great housemates and a car so I can explore and go on runs around North Wales which is a big stress reliever. If I was in a city like my undergrad at the University of Manchester I’m not sure I’d be coping as well.”
Despite everything, Emma is still feeling positive for the future, she’s just had to change her mind set a bit.
“I have learnt to not look too far ahead now as everything keeps changing so it is difficult to be certain of 2021 in particular. I will still follow my plan and apply for jobs, luckily agroforestry and forestry in general is a growing sector and as they mainly involve visiting sites outdoors it hasn’t been drastically affected by Covid, there are a lot of new jobs available so I am not as worried about finding a job.
“Hopefully this is still true when I begin applying. I am lucky with this as it must be really hard graduating with a degree where the sector is struggling.”
Similarly, to Jenny, Emma feels like decision making and keeping students updated hasn’t been the strength for her university through all this.
“The university only mentioned online learning and Covid restrictions a few weeks before starting. I initially felt annoyed about this as I am now spending a lot of money to live in Bangor but work in my room. This is partly my decision but if my housemates weren’t great then I would find this really difficult.
“I feel as though the university made decisions very late and only let us know right at the end, which created a lot of stress leading up to the course starting.
“I would have appreciated the government reducing fees for courses, especially like mine and marine sciences which my housemate is doing, but I know this probably isn’t realistic with the economy being as it is.
“There should have been mass testing of students when we first arrived in September, like they are doing now before Christmas. This would have maybe reduced the peak that happened and stopped all these circuit breakers and lockdowns.”