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21st January 2021

Opinion: It’s time for us all to praise the unsung heroes of the pandemic – students

by Diana Blamires

Students have been blamed for spreading coronavirus and pilloried for having parties during lockdown but there have not been headlines trumpeting the good they’ve been doing in the pandemic.

Medical students and student nurses from universities across the country have been helping on the frontlines and many have now volunteered to help with the mass vaccination programme.

Academic staff are also lending a hand. Coventry University Assistant Professor Steph Coles, a paramedic who herself was ill with coronavirus last year, started working at West Midlands Ambulance Service over Christmas as soon as the academic term ended because she wanted to support her healthcare students who had taken on roles helping the NHS.

In Northern Ireland, medical students and nurses were fast-tracked into roles helping out with the pandemic as soon as their university courses finished. Our healthcare students are among the unsung heroes of this pandemic working long hours to play their part in saving lives.

This is a far cry from the proliferation of headlines blaming students for spreading coronavirus and censuring those who have been arrested for holding parties. As always, the few spoil it for the many. The vast majority of students are following very strict guidelines. International students who are stranded on campus are strolling or running on their own or with one other student. Shopping trips for food are predominantly alone. The overwhelming majority of students are loyal to the communities in which they live and want to play their part by not spreading the virus.

Contrary to headlines about isolated students with no university support, some universities have gone to great lengths to focus on the welfare of students during the pandemic. The University of Buckingham is even enabling students to take therapy dogs out for their daily exercise. A student is allowed to go for a walk with one member of the welfare team and the dogs. In normal times the university’s two black therapy cockapoos, Millie and Darcie, are available to help homesick freshers who are missing their pets, and relieve anxiety for stressed students. Walking and cuddling them calms students at exam time. Research indicates a few minutes spent petting animals, especially black dogs, helps to reduce the stress-inducing hormone cortosol.

Furthermore, most universities are offering virtual sessions simply for students to chat and air concerns. A number of smaller ones are arranging for students to be phoned regularly. Counselling sessions are available online.

There are the many students who have helped with Oxford University’s world-leading vaccine programme and other such research projects who have quietly played their part while the university grabs the limelight.

Although headlines are shrieking about students paying rent while living at home a significant number of universities managed to offer face to face sessions on campus right up until the end of last term when the government announced lectures must be online only. Many universities managed one to one or very small group meetings in person. Students at universities with face-to-face and good online provision are not asking for their money back for tuition fees as they feel their university did the best it could in the circumstances.

The estate departments of universities went to enormous lengths to ensure in-person meetings were in safe environments and cleaners were deployed to guard against the spread of coronavirus as a result of those sessions.

Student unions also pulled out all the stops to come up with imaginative ways of enabling groups of six to meet outdoors including barbecues and outdoor workouts as well as picnics and organised walks.

Whilst inevitably in some student cities the virus thrived when students first arrived, in the autumn many stopped the spread in their local communities thanks to huge efforts by staff and students. It is vital that we appreciate our students for the positive and vital role they are playing in this pandemic rather than simply berating them as superspreaders when the vast majority have played by the rules and had a very challenging year at university as a result.

Photo credit: Micurs

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