On 19th July, we will have ‘Freedom Day’. The day when most coronavirus restrictions regarding visiting friends, relatives and navigating the shops will be scrapped. Masks will be optional, and we won’t have to stand two metres apart from others. Though it means we can be free to see others and live life before the lockdown and introduction of such legal restrictions of March last year, what does it mean for university students, prospective, current and those about to graduate?? How have our studies been affected by the pandemic, lockdown and social distancing, and how will we adjust back to the ‘old’ norms of pre-COVID times?

Before the virus struck, many students would have gone to lectures and seminars, and visited the library freely for studying and book browsing, as well as participated in any societies we would have been participating in. However, with pretty much everything going virtual from the 23rd of March, we have been required to adapt and learn new ways of learning and communicating. A fine example of this is Zoom – before the pandemic, it was little known and little used. Not even I knew it was a thing, until one of my tutors introduced it to us in the days before the first pandemic. Nonetheless, I got to grips with how it worked and how to enter meetings set up not just by my tutors, but also other university schemes and groups I was part of, namely the student ambassadors and welcome mentors.

Firstly, studying for my theology degree remotely required me to check the likes of MyNewman and Moodle to see when and if the virtual meetings would correspond with the times that I would usually have my face-to-face seminars, as well as informing my family members of when I would be in a meeting. I would inform them when it had started and when it would end, and would check how these meetings would fit around me going shopping, having lunch, doing my housework and leisure time. In addition, I increased my use of ebooks and online academic journal articles for my assignments, since I couldn’t go to the library for a few months. However, the fact that I also took out several books before the library shut meant that I had adequate resources for my assignments. When the library reopened, I still continued to take out the occasional book for my works like I did before, and used the computers there as an alternative to working at home. Unlike pre-lockdown, I had to book either a Click and Visit (which allows browsing, borrowing and photocopying) or Click and Study (which had the bonuses of computer use and study areas, in addition to the CAV services), and there was social distancing throughout the library. Apart from these new policies, and the quarantining of returned books, working in the library was no different compared to before the pandemic became widespread.

Similarly, not many opportunities were initially available for me and the other student ambassadors to do, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, we held a quiz over Zoom, with the recruitment staff reading out questions and displaying the slides using the ‘screen share’ tool. Around July or August last year, there was a Virtual Open Day, in which my fellow ambassadors and I, along with the uni staff, used the Newman website to interact virtually with prospective students, answering any questions they may have had about our subjects and university life and services. Though I personally did not receive any queries from visitors, I found it fascinating navigating the platform and talking to the Head of Theology, as well as seeing what advice and information the other ambassadors were giving to prospective students. This month, I returned to uni to help out on a traditional Open Day for the first time in over a year – this being the case, it felt a tad surreal to be on campus, showing visitors around, and working with ambassadors who I hadn’t seen in person for a year. So much so, I had to ask some of them to remind me of their names. Disappointing, no? Nevertheless, this event has made me feel confident that the university is on its way out of the pandemic, albeit with cautions such as the one-way system, mask-wearing, and tour groups being limited to one family/group, rather than several.

This was not the first time in which I guided people around the campus after a period of lockdown – as a Welcome Mentor, I worked on campus to guide newly enrolled students around the campus, following the one-way signs and stickers, and showing them how the institution was following government guidance around social distancing. Prior to this, I participated in Zoom meetings where new students could drop in and ask any questions about university life – though no-one turned up in my sessions, it was still good to see Leoarna and the other mentors, as I could see who I was working with. This also served as good preparation for working, and studying on, the campus in the week before university officially started.

Come Freedom Day, we will all begin to take the first steps in returning to a pre-pandemic era, being able to interact with others without having to follow legal restrictions. So far, the university Library is open for studying and browsing (albeit with booking and face covering requirements), the institution is offering lateral flow testing, and outside, shops and entertainment venues are reopening. And as for lectures and seminars, we can expect a blended approach to teaching, akin to what was implemented earlier in this academic year. To elaborate, there will be a mixture of face-to-face seminars and remote sessions on Zoom, as well as pre-recorded lectures on Panopto. I have a feeling that this approach will help people prepare for these sessions more effectively, as opposed to merely issuing handouts/photocopies to read over. I also have hope that the societies will operate like they used to, in person and allowing for students to engage more effectively with the university community than over Zoom. However, with such freedoms, some of us will still be cautious about a possible third wave of the virus and when hopefully we’ll finally enter a COVID-free era.
– Faron Spence-Small, BA (Hons) Theology and Philosophy student –

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