Covid-19 means that students going to university for the first time or returning in Autumn 2020 have not enjoyed the usual “uni experience”.
In a number of high-profile cases, thousands of students have been locked down in halls of residence. Universities have taken measures such as moving lectures and seminars online and making changes to sports and social activities so that they can be carried out in a “Covid secure” way.
There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, but we have put together this guide for students heading off to uni in the next few weeks or thinking about applying to university in 2021.
NOTE: We will update this article to reflect the changing situation and provide valuable information for next year.
'How will universities keep students safe during the Covid pandemic?'
First of all, take a look at this very short video the University of Oxford made for its students to remind yourself how to limit the chance of catching or spreading Covid, whichever university you are off to:
How is university different this year?
Like many of the answers here, it will depend on the university. Many universities will move lectures, seminars, classes and supervisions online - using tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom that we’ve all become very familiar with over the last few months.
Some universities will provide a limited amount of teaching in-person, in socially distanced lecture halls and classrooms. Students who need access to facilities such as labs and workshops will be able to use these resources with social distancing in place - this could mean fewer students in class and 2-metre distancing enforced at all times.
Most universities will also place hand-sanitising stations and sinks around the campus, site or university buildings.
Limiting the spread of Covid is all about reducing the number of people we come into contact with. The fewer contacts, the less opportunities the virus has to pass from person to person. The government has banned gatherings of more than 6, so parties won’t be possible in the way that they usually are.
Some universities may also introduce their own “bubble” systems so students can enjoy social activities like Freshers’ Week while reducing the number of people they are coming into contact with. And unless the law changes, you can still go to the pub or restaurant for a night out. Just make sure you wash or sanitise your hands as often as you can - especially before eating - and wear a face-mask wherever possible.
To some extent, you will need to use your common sense and consider the implications of taking part in social activities - for yourself and others. Despite what some have said, evidence shows that overall young people have made big sacrifices throughout the pandemic to protect other, more vulnerable people. Don't let anyone tell you that you're the problem - you're doing a great job, keep it up!
Some universities will run limited socially distanced lectures, classes and one-to-one tutorials. In general, most of these activities are moving online. Online, teaching will be as close to normal as possible - you will be able to ask questions and listen to your lecturer. In fact, you may find it easier to interact with your lecturer because you can ask questions in writing rather than in person - and you won’t have to leave the warmth of student halls on cold Winter mornings. So online lessons have their up-sides as well!
Since coursework and personal study take place independently anyway, this won’t change. You should be able to access many resources such as library books online - which is increasingly the case, anyway - and when you arrive you will be set up with an online account where you get access to various support tools and study materials. Universities have taken steps to make sure libraries are safe if you need to use them - such as by introducing 1-way systems and limits on the number of people who can be in the library at the same time.
Provision for exams is still being worked out - and will be decided later in the year, likely in response to the developing Covid situation. Early evidence suggests that the virus may be less widespread and less dangerous in warmer months, so it may be that you sit exams in person as normal. Last year (2019-20), most universities ran exams remotely, with students sitting them in their accommodation - so this system has been tried and tested if it’s needed again.
For the most part, social distancing rules will not apply to students who live together in a single household, even if there are more than 6 of you - these are known as “household bubbles”. However, if one person in the household develops suspected Covid symptoms, then the entire household must go into self-isolation until that person tests negative or the household is clear of Covid.
Some universities have even developed their own “quarantine accommodation” for students, which is designed for students arriving from other countries. This accommodation is even being considered for UK students, particularly those who are travelling from areas of the country where there are stricter restrictions.
How do institutions plan to react to Covid outbreaks?
This will depend on your university’s Covid action plan.
In general, universities will quarantine and test students that are experiencing symptoms and anyone sharing a household with them. Some universities already experiencing big outbreaks are giving students who do not have Covid the option to go home if they want to and if it is practical.
It is best to check with your university beforehand and see what their plans are for any potential outbreaks.
I’m scared about going to university, should I be?
No. You don’t need to be scared, but you should continue acting responsibly, follow the guidelines and take all the measures you can to protect yourself and others. This means wearing a face-covering where possible, staying 2 metres away from anyone outside your household, and washing and sanitising your hands as often as you can, particularly before eating.
Not everyone can wear a mask for health reasons - speak to your university if this is the case, as there may be alternatives. For example, you may choose to wear a visor in certain situations - although visors provide less personal protection than masks, they do reduce the amount of virus you are exposed to. The university may also be able to make other arrangements to reduce the amount of contact you have with other people.
The overall number of cases among students is likely to be relatively small - and if you end up in self-isolation because you have been in contact with someone who has the virus, it does not necessarily mean you are infected.
If you do catch Covid-19, the likelihood is you will experience mild symptoms and you will almost certainly not need to go to hospital. This is particularly the case for younger people. However, it is still important to be cautious because Covid is unpredictable and can sometimes be unexpectedly severe in young and otherwise healthy people. It is also a big risk for those with certain underlying health conditions, which may include your friends even if you are healthy yourself. It is important to balance these risks without obsessing over the virus or letting worry get in the way of your studies, day-to-day life and mental health.
This video from the NHS explain the basic measures to take as well as some of the ways Covid spreads - it's worth watching as it will help you understand the virus a bit better:
Mental health support
For many of us, the Covid pandemic has had a big impact on our mental health. Being stuck inside for months on end without being able to visit friends and family-members has been tough for most people. The experience of living through a pandemic can also cause a lot of stress and anxiety. For many people with pre-existing mental health problems, Covid has been even harder.
It is always important to look after your university mental health, as it is difficult for many of us to move into a new phase of our lives with so many changes and new pressures. If you are struggling, we recommend speaking to your university and seeing what mental health support is on offer and how to access it given the social distancing measures in place. All universities have counselling services or mental health support teams, and most will be offering specialised support for those struggling with the pandemic.
It is important that you speak to others as often as possible - whether that’s a friend, family-member, housemate or all of the above. Arrange regular online chats with friends or family-members back home - if talking is not your thing, you could always play an online game or watch a film together on Zoom. If you are struggling, try to organise online sessions with university counsellors as early as possible, before things escalate. If you can, let a friend or housemate know so they can keep an eye on you.
Make sure that you get as much fresh air and exercise as possible and - if Covid restrictions allow it and you think it would be beneficial - arrange to meet up with family at least once during the term for a walk together or something else you enjoy doing. Go out for as many socially distanced walks with friends as you can - and if the weather’s nice and Covid restrictions allow it, you could always work outside with some friends, or have a picnic together (just remember to take hand sanitiser and avoid sharing food).
Finally, try not to work too hard. Stuck inside with your computer more than usual, it may be tempting to spend every waking hour on uni work, but try to maintain a routine and only work between certain hours, with a definite cut-off point when you stop working and do something you enjoy.
What does the future hold?
We are still learning to live with Covid-19 and it is hard to predict what the months ahead hold for university students. One thing we can be sure of is that it will not last forever - and the longer we live with the virus, the better we will adapt to it. Many vaccine trials are entering their final phases and it is possible that by the end of the academic year, a successful vaccine - or series of vaccines - could end the pandemic or at least enable us to dramatically limit the threat from Covid-19.
If you have found this guide useful, please check out our advice series exploring different aspects of your university journey - from choosing a university and making your application to getting ready to start your course.