As freshers week drew to a close at the Parker House hall of residence in Dundee last week, one flat invited 30 or so fellow students to a party. Unknown to any of the attendees, one was experiencing early symptoms of coronavirus. When that party-goer and their flatmates all tested positive for the virus, the whole flat locked down, followed by the entire block.
The outbreak has turned an initially pleasant freshers week of socially distanced fun into a nightmare for Duncan Rendall, a first-year student at Abertay University who is now in his fourth day of lockdown. “I can’t leave my flat at all so I’m just stuck in my room,” he says. “It’s very isolating. You come to uni and expect to be able to socialise with new friends.”
While Rendall is lucky to have a more spacious disabled room, his flatmates are stuck in cramped quarters. “Even I’m feeling claustrophobic in my room but for them it’s taking quite a toll mentally.”
Rendall and his flatmates’ experience is one shared by hundreds of students around the country. They are facing up to a very different freshers to the one they expected, with coronavirus outbreaks replacing the traditional freshers flu and halls of residence lockdowns instead of wild parties.
One fresher at Nottingham is frustrated to find herself already asked to self-isolate two days after moving in. She thinks that only those students who have been directly in contact with an infected person should have to quarantine.
“If we need to isolate every time a suspected case is flagged up, then – as there’s almost 30 students per block – we could probably end up being holed-up in our rooms for the rest of the term,” she says. “As if the trauma of our A level results wasn’t bad enough. I don’t know how much more I can handle before I have a complete breakdown.”
Coronavirus cases have now spread to over 20 universities across the country, with particularly large outbreaks in Glasgow and Dundee, where the term starts earlier than at English universities. As a result, new restrictions in Scotland have banned students from socialising, while the UK government has advised all students against visiting their parents during term-time, including potentially confining them to halls over Christmas.
“[The new restrictions] are pretty drastic and it’s all a bit scary,” says Ralph Bennett-Richards, a first-year Glasgow student. “Moving up from London, living away from home for the first time, was scary enough without people now saying that we may not be able to home for Christmas. That’s made me really upset and I did have a little sob last night.”
Bennett-Richards says he plans to observe the restrictions, but he is worried about their impact on student mental health. “The mood in halls is quite sombre at the moment and everyone is just a little bit scared by the uncertainty. There definitely needs to be action to reduce the number of cases but singling out students as the problem, after being told to go out and eat and to come onto campus, seems really unfair.”
Under a new Scottish law introduced in May, students are permitted to exit their rental contracts early for reasons “relating to coronavirus”. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland these remain legally binding, which the National Union of Students is urging the Westminster and devolved governments to change.
Bennett-Richards says he is considering this option. “Having gone through the emotional toll of coming up here I’m not sure I could face going back. I’m just very confused at the moment.”
Students at other universities which have yet to report Covid-19 outbreaks agree that the experience has been strange – though not necessarily bad. Freshers week for Jude Parker, who is starting an undergraduate degree at Kings College, London, exceeded his expectations, thanks to socialising within his “household” of 14 people.
“I imagined it would just consist of me getting drunk in my room whilst playing parlour games with strangers on Zoom. Fortunately I was wrong to doubt the resourcefulness of students,” he says. “Most nights normally start in our kitchen with all of us mixing Smirnoff vodka with various flavours of juice. Afterwards, we tend to amble towards a pub.”
Isobel Whitfield, a first-year at university in Wales, has been invited to a few flat parties in her first week, some of which exceed the government’s new rule of six. But she adds that most students are trying to be careful: “The ones I’ve been to are pretty small, with only about 10 people there. They usually don’t go on very long either and tend to be quite quiet as people don’t want to get shut down by campus security.”
Police across the country have been breaking up student house parties, including one high profile incident in which a Nottingham student was fined £10,000. Some gatherings have been tackled by campus security, such as one involving over 400 students at Exeter University, while the University of Bristol is funding the police to patrol student neighbourhoods for house parties, according to student news outlet the Tab.
Jasmin Ly, a third-year student at the University of Nottingham, says she has observed first-year students socialising as they would in any normal freshers week. “On campus there is little social distancing and a lack of awareness that Covid is very much still present. Nottingham city centre is also busy with students.”
Universities are struggling to strike to the right balance between recognising their students’ independence and minimising the risk of coronavirus outbreaks. “It’s been a tightrope,” says Helen Higson, a pro vice-chancellor at Aston University, located in the centre of Birmingham.
“We’ve ensured our campus is Covid-secure and taken precautions to enable social distancing, but actually the young people arriving on campus have had no schooling for six months, they’ve been in lockdown, and they just want to let their hair down. That has been a struggle for them and for us,” she says.
“We’re managing this through lots of messaging such as our Aston Together campaign where we ask people to be safe, be kind, be respectful. We prefer not to have a heavy-handed approach, but to create a sense of responsibility and a sense of what it means to be an adult.”