Freshers across the country are being subjected to a psychological experiment that would never have been imagined, let alone sanctioned, before Covid-19 plunged the world into restrictive measures. Whether they will do any more than flatten curves or delay peaks is still not known but, either way, we are risking a mental health catastrophe among our young people.
The impact is bad enough in the school where I work – where teachers and pupils keep their distance from each other in well-ventilated classrooms that are rapidly becoming well-chilled. But at least we share the same space as each other. The lurch to online teaching in universities, in contrast, has confined freshers in their rooms spending hours every day staring into their laptops.
Barney, a physics student at a UK university, is just one of thousands of first year undergraduates corralled into a university experience like nothing we have ever known. Miles from home, he has been incarcerated in a university flat and socially distanced from a world his predecessors took for granted. In a recent call, I asked him about his plans for the next day.
“‘I will wake up, and I will be watching lectures on the internet. Hopefully I will then join a Zoom call with one of my lecturers because I have questions from the physics last week. There is probably a 50-50 chance that I will ask a question – it depends on how many people are waiting. No way to tell if I am third in the queue or fiftieth. Otherwise I will email.’
My now distant memories of a physics degree involved full days in the department between nine o’clock lectures and afternoon labs that went on until dusk. I asked Barney how many hours of face-to-face teaching he had this week: ‘none’.
How often does a day go by when you see nobody apart from your flat mates? ‘Quite often; I look out of my window and there are people walking outside in the plaza. I also see the cashier when I do my shopping.’
Let’s be clear, this is only the third week of his course. But getting to know course mates in 2020 has shades of a trial of Hercules. In normal times, some of the friendships made in the queue to see the lecturer might last a lifetime; the Zoom queue this year must feel like a lifetime in isolation.
The students are trying. Barney described unofficial WhatsApp chats – with 169 students on physics and 87 on maths – as lifelines when he is stuck. He explained that six of them had even managed a socially distanced meet up, ‘we went into the plaza outside and chatted to each other two metres apart wearing face masks. That is allowed isn’t it?’
Clubs and societies offer little respite from the laptop screen. Online games and quizzes seem to be the staple diet, though there are occasional sparks of ingenuity. The beekeeping society had sent out a craft pack in the mail that Barney assembled on a Zoom call with ‘between 12 and 20 others.’ He did hope to attend a frisbee session – outside and in person – but it depended on one of his flat mates not testing positive for Covid.
Although he is one of many, Barney is special to me because he is my son. His hopes of spreading his wings have been fettered, and he is struggling. It is a tough time for many people during this pandemic, but those of us already established in our careers at least have colleagues and contacts in existing networks. Barney’s experience involves rather less participation and rather more speculation. His lectures are all pre-recorded, and just as well. As he explained, ‘they practised with live lectures in the summer but the internet would drop out and it would freeze, so they decided to prerecord. Then on the first day, the cloud hosting service went down for a few hours just as I started my first lecture.’ His shoulders sagged as he explained ‘I never caught up since then.’
If these restrictions were only going to last until Christmas then maybe students could grit their teeth and bear it. But miraculous vaccines aside, there is no exit strategy. The young are giving up their liberty to save lives, but not their own – at least not from Covid-19. The infection fatality rate that reaches 1.4 per cent at age 65 is close to zero for younger adults. Barney knows it and his fellow students know it. ‘Someone in an online tutorial had coronavirus and thought it was freshers’ flu. If my flat mate tests positive I want to catch it off him as soon as possible because I will go into isolation anyway. If we all catch it one by one we might spend three months in lockdown. Unless we are going for the world record of longest lockdown, I don’t want that.’
Covid-19 may scare us because it is novel, but more familiar ailments have not gone away. Among young people aged 10 to 34, poor mental health is associated with the leading cause of death. What is happening in universities is more than an unethical psychological experiment, it is a cruel and unusual punishment. For the sake of Barney and thousands of others like him, risk assessments need to be reviewed. Locking students down in three tiers of misery is not without consequences, and we need to wake up to them.