'It's not like Normal People': how Covid-19 will change college life
The big read: Students face mounting uncertainty over what life on campus will be like this autumn as a result of the coronavirus, with social distancing, online lectures and the prospect of commuting from the family home. Kim Bielenberg reports
'It's absolutely not going to be like Normal People," says Professor Anthony Staines of Dublin City University as he looks forward to the start of the academic year in Ireland's third-level colleges.
In the coming months, tens of thousands of students will arrive on campuses at universities and institutes of technology, but there is still a strong element of uncertainty about what student life will be like. Will they be able to go for coffee, exchange notes or even hang out in this sterile new world of social distancing and face masks?
If colleges' current plans work out, most lectures will be streamed online. Seminars and tutorials will take place on campus and, in the short-term at least, students will be kept two metres apart where possible.
In certain settings such as science labs, where two-metre social distancing is not always possible, staff or students are likely to be required to wear face coverings or visors, according to Government guidelines released this week. University College Dublin has stocked 7,000 visors in preparation for the big return of students. In this hybrid model of third-level education - part online and part on campus - a significant number of students are expected to become long-distance commuters.
It remains to be seen how many will rent expensive apartments in cities if they are only spending part of their time in college.
Ian Power, who runs the youth welfare website Spunout.ie, says many students have taken a huge financial hit as a result of the pandemic because of the loss of part-time jobs and summer work. Short of cash, they may be tempted to stay at home and travel to college for seminars, couch surfing with friends if they have to stay overnight.
But in this changed half-in, half-out environment, will students enjoy the full formative experience of going to college for the first time, and the maturing process that comes with it?
Staines, who is professor of public health at DCU, says: "A very important part of university life is about becoming independent from your family, but that is not going to happen so easily now. It's going to be a different experience, and we don't know how it will affect students.
"The social aspect of university life is in a state of flux. The campus will be much quieter, and I can't see there will be events such as a freshers' ball."
Cormac Watson, a history and politics student at Trinity College Dublin who lived on campus through the lockdown, watched the bustling university transformed into a virtual dead zone almost overnight. "Trinity is normally a very vibrant place with students, staff and professors bumping into each other and having conversations, but overnight in the middle of March, almost everyone vanished," he says.
Now the 22-year-old Dublin student looks out over an empty Front Square and wonders what the social life of the university will be like when students return.
"A lot of Trinity life revolves around going out, particularly when you are in first year, with big events such as the balls," says Watson, who recently became editor of The University Times. "It's a very social university, and that is an important part of the experience. If social distancing protocols are still in full force, people won't be able to just hang out the way they normally would."
There will be particular concern in colleges about how first-year students are welcomed to campus, and how they will adjust. At the best of times, it can be a daunting and lonely prospect for a student, particularly when they move to a city for the first time.
In recent years, colleges have developed more elaborate orientation weeks, and these can help students make social connections early on. During freshers' week, they can join clubs and societies that form a vital part of their university life, and in some cases prove to be just as important in their future career as their academic achievements.
Jim Miley, director-general of the Irish Universities Association, says: "Colleges face a major challenge in inducting new students as a result of Covid-19. This kind of orientation would normally take place on a mass group basis, but now it has to be broken down into much smaller groups."
Colleges are also concerned about whether new foreign students will enrol this year in big numbers as a result of the pandemic. The picture may only become clear in the coming weeks.
Students from outside the EU are a massive source of revenue for colleges, commonly paying fees of between €9,000 and €25,000 a year. For some courses such as medicine, fees can be as high as €54,000 a year.
Colleges may charter flights to bring in foreign students and pick them up from the airport, and special arrangements may be made for those who need to spend two weeks in quarantine, Miley says. UCD is offering accommodation rent-free for two weeks for those who need to go into self-isolation.
The first consideration for most students will be working out where to live. The three-week delay in the Leaving Cert results - delivered by calculated grades - is a headache for new arrivals. Because they will get their results on September 7, they will have less time to find accommodation, while returning students will have a head start.
Ronan Lyons, assistant professor of economics at Trinity College, closely monitors rents in Dublin and other cities. He says availability of accommodation in Dublin has improved by 50-60pc since last year. But so far, he has seen little sign that the rents sought by landlords have dropped. There has also been a slight increase in availability of accommodation in Galway.
Lyons says that before the pandemic, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence of students commuting long distances to Dublin from counties such as Wexford and Cavan. This trend is likely to be accelerated when many students spend less time in college.
Ian Power of SpunOut.ie says that with a growing number of students choosing to commute to college from their family homes, even from distant counties, institutions should consider scheduling seminars in the afternoon.
When the lockdown happened suddenly in March, third-level colleges adapted quickly and moved their operations online in what Lyons calls "induced innovation". Using online portals such as Blackboard and Brightspace, students followed lectures and did assignments from home. It was a remarkable transformation, but it had its drawbacks.
Eilis O'Brien, communications director at UCD, said the university surveyed students during the lockdown about the remote learning experience.
"The survey indicated that our students want to return to campus, missed interaction with their friends and their lecturers, and missed being part of the university experience," she says.
The survey listed students' top five concerns about remote learning. These were: lack of structure to the day; lack of motivation to learn; lack of concentration; loneliness; and missing friends.
Like most other colleges, UCD is planning a hybrid model of learning, with lectures targeted at big groups going online, and smaller groups spaced out in lecture halls for seminars.
Undergraduates will attend face-to-face sessions for 40-60pc of the normal class time. "We are now trying our best to bring the students back to campus, because we believe the experience is an important part of their education, but we can only do what the public health guidelines allow us to do," says O'Brien.
Preparing colleges for complete reopening this autumn is a complex procedure, because the institutions have to have contingency plans for a number of different scenarios, which depend on Covid-19.
If the coronavirus begins to spread widely again, college authorities may have to switch back to remote learning.
In the most optimistic scenario, Covid-19 will disappear quickly and requirements for social distancing will be eased, but few observers expect that to happen in the short-term.
The latest Government guidelines for colleges, which were released this week, state: "A full return to comprehensive on-site delivery, such as existed prior to the crisis, is unlikely in the short- to medium-term."
"All the colleges have the same challenges to keep students safe," says Staines. "There's going to be a lot of staying at home and a lot of online learning."
In lecture halls over recent months, staff have been calculating the number of students that can be accommodated under different scenarios.
Under the Covid-19 regulations in Phase 3 that limit the size of indoor gatherings, a lecture hall that would normally hold 500 can only accommodate about 50.
In the next phase, with two-metres social distancing, a similar lecture hall may be able to push up the numbers to just 100.
While many of UCD's facilities have reopened, including the gym, pools and some cafés, the college is still taking a cautious approach, says Dr Peter Coulahan, its director of safety.
The university has a strict set of rules for staff who are coming back to work on campus. They have to submit health declarations and have induction training in health protocols. Library staff have been placed in work pods, so that the same team works together every day.
The days when the public could nonchalantly stroll through the grounds of Trinity College seem to be numbered, at least for the foreseeable future. Guidelines issued by the Government this week say "non-essential or unnecessary traffic on to a campus should be avoided".
Colleges are being advised to postpone graduation ceremonies or replace them with virtual events. Mass gatherings of students for exams in vast halls are not likely to happen for some time. The Christmas UCD exams, normally held in the RDS, have already been cancelled.
Lyons of Trinity says timetabling in the college is extremely complex for the coming year, because it has to plan for different scenarios.
The future operation of clubs and societies will be a vital part of the colleges' social life when the students return, but it remains to be seen how restricted they will be.
Jason Last, UCD's dean of students, said the college recently carried out a survey of clubs and societies. "They are ambitious to have person-to-person activities while recognising that they have to be flexible," he says. "Sixty five percent are planning to have a virtual as well as face-to-face presence in the coming autumn."
Lebanese-Irish student Celine Dakik, who studies French and law, has been involved in extracurricular activities at UCD and was auditor of the Arab Society last year.
"As much as I'd love for things to go back to normal and for us to have our student life back as it was before the pandemic, we shouldn't forget about all the measures that were put in place in order to fight the virus," she says.
"I would expect a lot of events to happen virtually. I'd say that more outdoor events could take place as well, since they'd actually be easier to manage. I hope that, whatever the situation will be like in a few months from now, that we'll still find ways to enjoy college life."
Students' experience in the coming year will depend heavily whether there is a resurgence of coronavirus infections.
Eoin Hand, president of Trinity Students' Union, says: "There's always an anxiety around whether it will spike again. It's a very volatile and fragile situation, but ideally we would have students, domestic and international, being able to come to Dublin, protected and well-looked-after. They need to have as much contact as possible with lecturers and teachers."
First-years will not have the same experience that their predecessors enjoyed, he adds.
"It may seem a small issue but nightclubs are not going to open until 2021. That feeds into the whole social aspect of going to college, where you are meeting new people, where you are going to pubs, clubs, films, plays and restaurants," he says. "That whole expectation is now being skewed."
Ian Power of Spunout.ie says: "The transition between secondary school and third level can be difficult for students, and many of them struggle. One of the protective factors is the social connection you make and the support structure you build around you. It's going to be very different for students this year.
"When students feel connected to the college community, they do better with their education. I am sure that will be on the mind of college presidents."
Youth welfare: Ian Power from Spunout says anxiety levels are creeping u
Spunout.ie runs a text counselling service for young people and has been tracking anxiety levels since the start of lockdown.
"We noticed that when we went into lockdown, anxiety spiked to double its normal level," says Power. "When we were in lockdown, it came down and people seemed to relax, but what we have seen is that over the past weeks it has crept up again as the restrictions ease.
"A lot of that is down to uncertainty about the future," he adds. "A lot of young people going into college are uncertain about how it is going to work, and whether it is going to be the sort of experience they looked forward to."
UCD student Gearóid Dardis in Trim, Co Meath. Photo by Gerry Mooney
Case study: Gearóid Dardis, 20, is a law and Irish student at University College Dublin from Summerhill, Co Meath. He will enter his third year in September.
It was not just students' education that was disrupted by Covid-19; it also brought their social lives to an abrupt halt.
Gearóid Dardis had been heavily involved with Cumann Gaelach, the Irish language society, but had to move home to Meath when UCD closed its doors in March. "There were the nights out, the coffees and the lunches together, but everything stopped," he says. "I went from being around people and doing things all the time to just being with my small family unit. My parents wouldn't stop asking me what I was doing."
He is concerned about the lack of opportunities to meet and mingle when colleges reopen.
"Society events will be fine. We can socially distance at coffee mornings and debates. But nights out and balls are a different story," he says. "I personally would be very concerned about first-years and people who haven't quite found themselves yet. We all know nightclubs and pubs attract different groups of people. How can you find like-minded people and widen your circle without those venues?
"There has been a lot of commentary about young people and house parties online and in the media, but in defence of young people, it's just a result of their nature," he adds. "They want to be social."
Students who plan a long-distance commute to college will face the greatest challenge, Dardis believes.
"I have decided to move back to Dublin but I know people who are planning to couch-surf for one or two nights a week," he says. "With that, you won't get involved in the societies or extra events and may not get to experience as much as I did in my first two years. I think some of this will affect students' mental health. We all get stressed together, and you are in it together. You don't have that at home, and it can be quite isolating."
'The idea of only being there for one or two days is probably the worst part'
Edwina O'Brien is hoping to do nursing in Letterkenny. Photo by Andrew Downes/Xposure
Case study: Edwina O'Brien, 18, from Tuam, Co Galway, hopes to study general nursing at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT) in September.
Uncertainty has plagued the Leaving Cert class of 2020. For Edwina O'Brien, the unpredictability of her third-level future is frustrating. "I thought we would be getting our results in August, now it has been pushed out until September," she says. "My first choice is LYIT, but we don't know what the college timetable is going to look like yet."
LYIT's website states it is adopting a blended learning model with online and face-to-face teaching. This means fewer hours on campus. Edwina wants to move to Letterkenny - the commute from Galway is at least three-and-a-half hours each way - but increased online schooling will force her to reassess.
"The idea of only being there for one or two days is probably the worst part of it. If it was to happen, I'll stay with my granny because she lives in Monaghan and it's only an hour away on the bus," she says. "I haven't applied for any accommodation yet because I want to see how things fare."
Her second choice is the University of Dundee in Scotland, yet the thought of being in a different country during a pandemic is worrying. "I'd be terrified if I was over there and a second wave came with a lockdown," she says.
She will not know anyone at either college and is concerned that limits on socialising may make it harder to find friends. "I think the traditional socialising is the part we will miss out on the most," she says. "We have all heard the tales about freshers' week."
That said, she believes the upheaval will affect other years more than the new arrivals, who she says are more accepting of the situation.
"I have never experienced college. I can't make any comparisons, whereas other years know what they are missing," she says. "I think it will be easier for us to adapt."