By Lily Farrant, Features Investigations Editor
This September saw thousands of first-year students move into Bristol halls of residence. With people coming together from all over the country, as well as the rest of the world, it was only a matter of time before coronavirus cases began to rise and the self-isolation periods began.
For the 319 residents of The Courtrooms, this came impressively quickly. On 9 October, students were told they would be in a two-week lockdown and to go back to their residences as soon as possible.
Aware of the high chances of this happening, many people questioned whether it was worth coming back to university this year. With teaching mostly online, it becomes problematic, if inevitable, that the University ask students to miss the few hours of face-to-face teaching that they have.
One first-year even explained that one of her seminars had to be moved online because of how few people were able to show up.
When asked about the morale in The Courtrooms, students have expressed different perspectives. Some admitted they saw it coming all along, whilst others explained that at the beginning everyone was stunned, saying ‘all we were talking about was how ridiculous and unfair it is. Now we just get on with it.’
Despite the different initial responses, the general consensus of this whole pandemic seems to be that no matter how rough things are, nothing can be done except trying to make the most of the situation.
South Central Barbers on Nelson Street arranged for beers to be dropped off at every flat in The Courtrooms.
One student explained that her flat used the time to take up new hobbies, have poker or movie nights, and generally bond. Forced to spend time together, she said the lockdown allowed them to ‘really discover the people you’re living with.’
Support came from unexpected places, to liven up repetitive evenings. In a wholesome turn of events, South Central Barbers on Nelson Street arranged for beers to be dropped off at every flat in The Courtrooms. Students also resorted to Deliveroo to get alcohol delivered from The Co-op.
Nonetheless, no matter how great your flat is, one of the best things about starting at university is meeting lots of new people - something which this year’s freshers have been unable to do easily. Closed clubs, teaching being mainly online and parties that are strictly policed makes socialising practically impossible.
The University of Bristol has fined 40 students this week for breaking coronavirus rules around gatherings https://t.co/2tktg1plj9— Bristol Live (@BristolLive) November 9, 2020
Students spoke to Epigram to explain the struggle of meeting people in classes. Isolating stops you from meeting new people, one student explained, and ‘before you know it, you’ve had a month where you haven’t met anybody new’, thus making it virtually impossible to put yourself out there.
Needless to say, freshers are in a very different position to their friends who started university last year.
Emma Andre, an international student from Paris who had to lockdown in The Courtrooms, explained that the possibility of lockdown was made clear to her from the start, and that the University even offered that she come to Bristol in January instead of September.
One law professor decided to intervene, and contacted the University to make sure that students in lockdown were being acceptably provided for.
With only five days to explore Bristol between her self-isolation after arriving from France and The Courtroom’s lockdown, the situation is unfortunate to say the least. Nevertheless, Emma explained that ‘when you start mixing with people, you have to expect self-isolation to happen.’
According to students, the University’s response to the lockdown has been mixed.
Some students said that the food boxes initially delivered to The Courtrooms only consisted of cupboard and dry foods, with no fresh fruit and vegetables. One law professor reportedly even contacted the University, wanting to ensure that the students were being acceptably provided for.
Some students had to choose between going outside or attending an online lecture. Others chose not to go out at all.
Eventually, fresh produce started to arrive.
One student had to email to ask for sanitary pads to be dropped off at her flat. Although she was told these would be delivered the next evening, they never arrived.
In response, a University of Bristol spokesperson said free sanitary products were provided to support those self-isolating and that the University is ‘sorry this student’s initial request went unanswered, but had she followed this up we would have made sure she had some. Likewise, we’re sorry to hear that some students were not happy with their free food boxes.’
In addition, the spokesperson said there are ‘clear processes in place for students to get in touch if they have any problems, questions or concerns and we will do our upmost to resolve these as quickly as possible.’
Other students did, however, say their boxes were good and that the University were generally responsive and helpful in the transitory period into the lockdown, even ordering Papa John’s pizza to be delivered to the students halfway thought the lockdown.
For the first week, the courtyard was occupied by the Test and Trace tent until 3 o’clock, meaning that residents weren’t allowed outside until after they’d left. One social bubble’s designated outdoor slot was from 8:30 to 9 pm – resulting in some students not experiencing any real daylight for a week.
Once the tents had cleared they had an earlier slot, with one first year resident, Emma, telling Epigram ‘It’s good because we get to see actual light.’
The problem with designated outdoor time like this is that even in lockdown, everyone has different schedules. Some students had to choose between going outside or attending an online lecture. Others chose not to go out at all.
The Courtrooms student accommodation for the University of Bristol has been put in lockdown and 300 students have been told to self-isolate after 40 tested positive for Covid-19 @SWNS #bristol #COVID19 #lockdown #selfisolation #bristoluni pic.twitter.com/UdtcKV56m8— Tom Wren (@TomWrenPhoto) October 9, 2020
This could obviously have a negative toll on students’ mental health. When asked about mental health support during The Courtroom’s lockdown, Emma said that: ‘They sent emails about it, and most people received calls from the office of the residential village asking how people were doing.’
Liv Evans, meanwhile, told Epigram that the University’s mental health support was inadequate, with no extra support given beyond the standard procedures.
Whether these different opinions are down to personal experience, or lack of clear communication from the University, one thing remains abundantly clear: this is an incredibly challenging time for students, and mental health support needs to be made a top priority.
A stricter lockdown presents huge challenges for students’ mental health, whilst looser restrictions could be deemed irresponsible.
Zoom mingles were organised to encourage students to get to know each other despite the difficult circumstances.
Another student from The Courtrooms told Epigram about a friend in Hiatt Baker, who was forced into lockdown two days after arriving at her flat. Having struggled with mental health issues in the past, she was tempted to drop out if this was what university was going to be like.
The situation is incredibly difficult to navigate and arguably lose-lose. A stricter lockdown presents huge challenges for students’ mental health, whilst looser restrictions could be deemed irresponsible.
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: ‘We acknowledge that having to self-isolate is not easy and as such our Wellbeing and Residential Life teams did their best to reach out to students to check in with them and to ensure they were aware of the support that was on offer during this time.’
In response to the challenges of self-isolation experienced by students, the University have also adapted their support to ensure the Wellbeing Access service is open ‘24/7’ via phone and online, as well as introduced the online toolkit, ‘Being Well Living Well’.
‘We are continuing to support all students who have elected to live in our halls of residence this year,’ the University of Bristol spokesperson continued. ‘This continues throughout the current lockdown, alongside in-person teaching which will be offered until early December before students can return home to conclude this term’s studies online should they wish to do so.’
Until then, freshers are still having to contend with the restrictions imposed by a national lockdown.
After The Courtroom’s quarantine came to an end on Saturday 24 October, many spoke of having celebrated their newfound freedom with midnight walks around the city, seeing something other than the inside of their flat.
No one can know how the next stage of this pandemic will take hold and the continual impact this will have on first year’s experiences – leaving freshers to make the most of their freedom when they have the chance. Many hope there will be more of such moments later in the year.
Any students struggling with are encouraged to contact Wellbeing Access, and can find other online support 24/7 here.
Nightline’s phone service is available 8pm to 9am every night of term at 01179 266 266.
Featured image: Flickr / Matt Gibson