Maeve McTaggart, News Editor
March 12th marked one year from the pronouncement of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organisation and then-Taoiseach Varadkar’s address from Washington D.C. Schools, colleges and workplaces closed the following day; restaurants, retail and cafés soon followed. One year on, the nation has experienced varying degrees of lockdown and reopening – flattening the curve to being categorised as the world’s worst outbreak in January of 2021. While much has changed in a year, much has remained the same: UCC—and all higher education institutions in Ireland—have not returned to on-campus learning since the day they departed in March 2020.
University Express invited students to reflect on the past year spent living with COVID-19 and recorded their responses. In March of 2020, the pandemic was gradually spreading through the world, with Italy as it’s epicentre. There were seventy cases in the Irish state when the nation went into ‘the first lockdown.’ Students were asked to think back to this time, and what their expectations were for the months ahead.
The most common answer amongst the students surveyed was that the college would be closed for a short period of time: that “after a few weeks we would be back on campus and everything would be fine again,” or at least “that the pandemic would be over by summer.” Students spoke of their assumptions that COVID-10 would soon be “a distant memory,” not still a reality a year later.
For months, social contacts have been limited as public health advice reamined to socially distance and reduce one’s bubble. This posed challenges for students, who went from attending face-to-face lectures on a bustling campus to connecting virtually to a Teams call. University Express asked students to describe the last year in their own terms, defining the big moments which marked their year with COVID-19 – good or bad.
One student remarked how online-learning allowed them to avoid a lengthy commute to campus; others appreciated their sustained ability to perform well in exams under the circumstances; most, however, commented on the toll of the pandemic and the consequences it has taken on their mental health. The stress associated with contracting and potentially spreading the virus heavily impacted student’s mental health, according to respondents.
When asked, “How did COVID-19 affect your college experience?” many students commented on the difficulty in setting boundaries when living, learning and spending leisure time all in the same space. Students who had experienced their first-year or longer in on-campus learning found the adjustment easier on average, the greatest loss to these students was the spontaneity and socialisation campus life offered: “To begin with, many people struggled with technology, that was never the thing that bothered me the most though. I missed the coffees between lectures, casual chats with friends and a sense of time passing.” Feedback from students on the online-learning experience was balanced, but most maintained that online-learning left a lot to be desired. One first year student told University Express that the dynamics of online lectures are difficult to adapt to having never experienced them in-person, saying interaction is limited and that they are “much less likely to ask a question in a lecture because they are recorded.”
Students hoped for a return to campus next semester but did not wish to commit to the idea, instead practicing patience as a decision is made. In September of 2020, as higher-level education institutions were a weekend away from returning to a blended-learning experience, a surge in COVID-19 cases forced the semester—and rest of the year—online.
In conversation with Eimear Curtin, UCCSU Education Officer, she described the last year as “a lot. A lot of work, a lot of emotion, but also a lot of energy, a lot of community.”
“The big bad moment was probably Freshers’ Week, that was tough. There are many more good moments though – publishing the Report of Student Feedback to Online Learning and presenting that locally and nationally definitely has to be a big one, being able to bring the voices of UCC students to places where actual change happens was a proud moment for me!”
The representation of the student experience in national media was a difficult image to sumount during the last year, with local disputes about Freshers’ Week breaking national headlines in late September. Repeated cluster reporting of COVID-19 cases amongst third-level students also affected the perception held of students nationally, with over 250 cases identified in students of Galway and Limerick universities in recent weeks. Cork students however, were thanked last week by Dr Anne Sheahan, Director of Public Health for Cork and Kerry, for their efforts in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“This is a very big ask of young people,” Dr Sheahan said, “we’ve had to ask them to give up so much at a very important stage of life. I want to thank these young people for their efforts… You have saved lives and are contributing to the falling levels of COVID-19 in the South.”