“The Government doesn’t care about us”: what it’s really like to self-isolate in university halls

Thousands of UK university students have been forced into isolation, denied the traditional fresher's week experience. Kate McMahon tells NME how it feels

The class of 2020 have had it tough. Their final year of school was cut short and they couldn’t sit their exams, meaning teachers predicted the grades that they believed students would achieve, and when these grades were moderated by exam boards, 39 per cent were downgraded.

Now a whole cohort of students have been packed off to university, but their experience will be atypical. While in previous years they’d have been enjoying wild freshers’ parties, making new friends and enjoying their newfound freedom, 2020’s first years are limited to socialising in groups of six and experiencing lectures via video. For some, though, it gets even bleaker.

Having moved across the country to start their university course, first-year students are now finding themselves having to self-isolate in university halls, having tested positive for Covid-19.

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Kate McMahon is currently isolating in a flat of eight at her halls at Glasgow School of Art after one of her flatmates was in contact with somebody who tested positive for coronavirus. Here she tells us what it’s been like self-isolating, and her experience of going to University for the first time in a pandemic.

“this is our 10th day of isolating. It’s been pretty tough. It’s a blessing I get along with my flatmates, but we’ve still only known each other for a month, and to have to spend every waking moment with the same seven people is quite exhausting for anyone.

“We had about two weeks of university before locking down. Not everyone in my accommodation is locked down; it depends on the flat. If you’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive, you have to isolate for 14 days.

“I know a lot of my friends in other universities have been having a lot of parties, but at mine the security has always been really tight. Even when we could socialise, they tried to keep it within our halls. Although obviously it’s really tough being isolated – even when were allowed to socialise there wasn’t the classic fresher’s week experience.

“As we’re a flat of eight, there were security guards literally shining torches into our window to make sure there weren’t more than six people in our kitchen. I understand that a rule is a rule, but it’s ridiculous that eight people that live together can’t all sit together. We can’t all go out as a flat, even if we were allowed to go to pubs and restaurants. It’s a bit mad.

“We’ve not been allowed to go into university yet. I’ve been at university in my halls for nearly a month, but I’ve still not been able to go to a class that isn’t on Zoom and we’ve not been told any of the rules about going home, like at Christmas. We were told that if you’re from Scotland, it’s illegal to go home and visit your parents. That came out on national news the other day, but the university’s not said anything whether or not that’s true. They’ve not really spoken to us at about anything. It’s a very strange to think that what life has been like in the past 10 days is what life might be for the next few months.

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“The University sent links to mental health support, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Obviously those mental health support services are going to be over the phone or Zoom, so it’s not the same as having that support system you’d have at home or speaking to your family or friends.

Many A Level students had their grades lowered earlier this year. Credit: Getty

“I think universities are starting to wake up to the fact that it is mad that students can travel hundreds of miles away from home and be locked in their rooms, and that wouldn’t cause mental health problems. I think they are starting to realise that they have a duty of care to us because we’re under their protection now, we’re living in halls, we’re away from our families and stuff. I think they have started to realise they need protect their students a bit more, which is definitely good.

“It’s entirely the Government’s fault. University halls have been able to open because the Government have decided, ‘Oh it’s safe for students to go into halls.’ The Government decided to prioritise the economics of the university rather than the mental and physical health of the students, which is quite a stark wake-up call that they don’t care about us.

“Even when they’ve made big broadcasted announcements university students are nearly never mentioned. It’s always hospitality, school children, people in care homes, people who work in offices – never university students. And obviously we don’t make up a massive part of society, but in September thousands and thousands of students have moved to university, so it’s a bit bizarre that we’re not prioritised in terms of being given clear instructions as to what we can and can’t do.

“I wasn’t allowed to defer my place because my university is quite small. But I’d never considered having to choose between my education and seeing my parents and my mental health. And so I probably would have deferred [had I known], but at the same time there’s nothing for young people right now. Hospitality jobs are so hard to find; part-time jobs are so hard to find. Having to isolate at home with your parents? We’ve been doing that for months on end!

There are very few options for things young people can actually do. I guess I’d have deferred if I knew that I’d be stuck in my room for weeks on end, but I’m still hoping that something can be salvaged from this year at university.”

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