It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
The switch on might have been cancelled but if you tread down to Sheffield’s city centre, you’ll be met with towering Christmas ornaments, the echoes of festive music flowing through the streets and fairy lights bleeding colour into dark corners, exchanging the usually prevailing silence for a festive murmur. The warm spectacle has lured artists out to play their instruments and families and couples out of isolation armed with layers of wool and rare smiles hidden behind masks. For once, the atmosphere is anything but sad; as the sun sets, even the shadows seem a little softer.
For some students, this will be as good as it gets this Christmas.
With the announcement of a second lockdown, plans and dreams of a Christmas filled with family and friends came crashing down. The festive period is usually a time for overwhelmed students to take a much-desired break and change scenery – for many, it’s the motivation they need to get them through the long nights of drafting essays or researching projects, the light at the end of the tunnel as they say.
Now, with no Christmas in sight and face-to-face teaching limited, students were left isolated, staring at a computer screen for hours at a time and often not leaving their room for days. Anxiety and depression transformed into those noisy neighbours that drop by unannounced and are hard to get rid of, and mental health confidently took her place as another prominent player in the ‘things that make 2020 suck’ game.
But then, after months spent with the government elegantly dancing around students’ issues – unless it was to point the dreaded finger of blame – the Department for Education (DfE) announced plans for a nine-day travel window. After weeks of talks of a student Christmas lockdown, this new window, starting from December 3, was to make it easier for students to get home early enough to avoid missing out on Christmas with loved ones if quarantining became a necessity.
During said time frame, according to DfE, each university will get their own travel window, with mass testing commencing prior to guarantee safety. On the surface, that may seem like a breakthrough with students’ mental health finally being taken into account during these turbulent times; however the window, like other pandemic-related plans and guidelines before it, came out of the blue, tipped everything off balance, and left much to interpretation.
To the government’s surprise, it was also not met by a standing ovation. The expectant cries of happiness were replaced with a heavy atmosphere saturated by a mixture of relief and dread. The idea behind the move might have been thoughtful but, once again, the execution seemed to be lacking in the eyes of the public.
Alice Preece, 20, a Journalism student at the University of Sheffield, felt like this was more a recipe for disaster than a Hail Mary. “I’m sure there’s some logic behind it, but I really struggle to see how it’s going to be effective and stop the spread of the virus if we’re getting the country’s students to travel all around the country in the space of a week, on public transport.”
“I’m lucky that my parents will be able to come and pick me up,” she added. “I won’t have to travel on public transport but I know for so many that is not an option. And that’s really quite scary to be honest.”
Using public transport is not favoured on a regular day but, during those six days trains, coaches, and buses will be crammed with students, people with pre-booked journeys and others on their way to work. And thus will begin a Covid-themed game of chance where losing may cost more than the usual fee of a few cards and a stab to the pride.
It will also be much more expensive.
Veronika Veikiptere, 19, a Sociology student from Sheffield Hallam University, will be driven home by her parents after being unable to find any ‘realistic’ train ticket prices for December 9, the travel window for Sheffield. “I understand they want to profit,” she says. “But profiting off students who haven’t had much support during this pandemic is very unfair and will disadvantage students who may not be able to go home.”
Veronika’s family resides in March, Cambridgeshire – a two-hour train ride from Sheffield that in the past cost her, at most, £46 with the aid of her railcard. “I used to get them for £26 if it’s way in advance. I looked at the prices for the 9th and they had increased to between 70 and 90 pounds.
“I have a railcard and without it the actual price was nearly £100 for a ticket for a two-hour train ride. It’s unrealistic for students.”
Co-starring in the unraveling of this new arc of universities’ Covid-19 journey are also furious professors exhausted by the idea of re-planning lectures they’d spend much of the previous summer stressing over.
“I am glad the students can go home safely,” says Lisa Bradley, 42, Director of the
Undergraduate Studies for the Journalism Department at University of Sheffield. “But I think there should’ve surely been a better way to do it. It’s very difficult to be told last minute that students are leaving in the middle of a week.”
Lisa and many other staff members from the University had to spend months after the first spike back in March re-planning lectures, assignments and exams. At the same time, students across courses were quickly met with the reality that the curriculum they had been promised when enrolling might not be delivered – they would have to compromise instead for a blend of face-to-face and online lectures. Now, after learning to adjust for the past few months, the time had come for another ‘curveball’.
“Students are leaving in the middle of a week so, to start with, if you leave then it means half of them will have gotten face to face, the other half won’t,” says Lisa. “So you’ve got complete inconsistency already for an entire week.”
“They’re going to have to go home, in the middle of a week, not knowing what they’re missing and what’s going to happen to the lectures they’re meant to be at while they’re travelling home.”
This might seem like a small price to pay but for numerous students early December is a time packed with deadlines and workshops that often require a physical presence at the university campus. “If students need to access the library or any resources you don’t have at home, how can you just pick everything and move back home in such a short window?,” says Veronika. “Some people have assignments due mid-December. Is your home environment the right environment for you to work in?”
On the other spectrum are international students whose issues have so far gone unaddressed. Being in a special predicament where they have to watch out for the guidelines in two different countries, they’ve been left in an awful state of limbo –watching as ticket prices go up. “I can’t [travel] because of work but I kinda feel a bit stuck also, because as a European student, we have very few guidelines regarding those things,” says Giulia Carleton, 20, an Italian student with dual citizenship. “If we were to come back in January, it’s also going to be right after Brexit – that’s a new question thrown in the pond.
As EU students I feel like we’re left on the side – abandoned and waiting.”
Yet, Lisa is adamant that, despite the government’s lack of support for the universities thus far, the staff are bent on delivering what was promised when students first submitted their applications in what feels like many moons ago. Even if it may cost them in terms of sanity.
“Everyone that works in this university is absolutely exhausted,” she admits. “And there’s only so many times you can react and change without us all burning out. But, equally, no we won’t let it affect us long-term cause there’s our reputation at stake;
“Everyone’s having to do things in new ways and we will too.”
The world we currently live in can be summed up by Leonardo DiCaprio staring anxiously at a spinning top, waiting to see if it’s going to halt. Control is a concept more elusive than ever, and every new day can turn the tables. But decisions designed to help should not instead be the cause of havoc.
The travel window showed the government recognising the urgency of students’ mental health and may have given many a chance for a normal (if the word has any real meaning left) Christmas. But it also failed to consider many important factors causing confusion and disarray amongst students, parents, and university staff.
It bears the question; are the decision-makers of this country truly paying attention?
*featured image by Flickr.com