The Pandemic: One Year On

12 months on from face-to-face teaching halting at Royal Holloway, SU President Kate Roberts reflects on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resilience of the student community, and the sheer dedication displayed by students and staff to combat the effects of an incredibly challenging year.

Today, 17 March, marks one year since face-to-face teaching halted at Royal Holloway and all of our lives were flipped on their head. What followed was the implementation of a national lockdown in the UK on 23 March and continued spikes in the level of Coronavirus in the UK ever since.

I felt I couldn’t let this date go by without marking the incredibly challenging 12 months that we have faced collectively, and that students have particularly been affected by. It has been a difficult year, but the last 12 months have taught me an awful lot about the resilience of the student community, as well as highlighted the sheer dedication displayed by students and staff, and the impact of community on all of us at Royal Holloway.

The lockdown summer

The Students’ Union started working from home on 17 March last year, with brief returns to the office for some of our staff in September – December. The team is currently working at home following the national lockdown introduced in January 2021.

For me, working from home has brought a lot of challenges alongside a few opportunities. I have personally struggled immensely with the lack of in-person interaction. We have all been denied socialising opportunities, and as the Students’ Union is such a social place to work, it has been a dramatic shift in culture with the ability to develop and build relationships with other members of staff impacted. The same goes for working with the whole sabbatical officer team, we take a lot from the strength of our team, and not being able to meet in person has made the situation more challenging.

Initially, I was incredibly busy working with the University to ensure that the summer assessment period could go ahead and that students were effectively supported in the challenging academic situation. However, once this work died down, I felt the first lockdown really taught me about the benefit of slowing down. I am one of those people who usually does everything at 100 miles per hour, and it felt very nice to be forced to explore new hobbies and take life at a slower pace for a few months.

Some particular highlights for me of the end of the 2019/20 academic year included ensuring student grades were protected at an unpredictable time through the Safety Net and Best 90 policies, launching our Facebook page Royal Hideaway to build an online community of students, undertaking our Digital Education Insight Report, working with the University to implement the Flexible Education approach, and welcoming our six School Reps into their roles following the elections. I am hugely proud of the work we achieved last year despite the situation we were in.

Back for 2020/21

As we moved into the 2020/21 academic year, a brand new sabbatical officer team joined me entirely online and settled into their roles in the midst of a very transformative time for the University. The fundamental way that education is conducted and carried out was altered this year to allow for a more flexible education and blended learning approach that the pandemic required. This provided us a fantastic opportunity to feed into these initial discussions about how the University will change and hopefully improve moving away from this pandemic.

As term started, the situation was looking up for students. We managed to host some events at the Students’ Union and sport and society activity recommenced. This was despite last-minute government changes which were implemented just before the term started including the rule of six and a 10pm curfew – which massively impacted our entire summer of events planning and caused us to have to very quickly alter plans. Nonetheless, we were able to make it work to ensure students were provided with social and connected experiences that are so crucial for us all.

Unfortunately, the national circumstances were not favourable and we headed back into a lockdown in November. Through all this we have had the opportunity since first term to work with the senior management team of the University on a daily basis through our new Rapid Response meetings, allowing us to raise issues as soon as they arise and creating a clear line of communication between the University and the Students’ Union.

The continued uncertainty and lack of ability to plan has been one of the difficult issues associated with the pandemic. I can’t tell you how many times we have made plans this year for a piece of work that has needed to be drastically altered or completely abandoned due to significant changes in the external environment and what we are able to do or focus on.

Despite this, we managed to carry out some fantastic work in term one. I have already mentioned our Rapid Response meetings but these have really been invaluable in resolving immediate concerns and working proactively with the University. We launched Digital Education 2.0 to understand your experience of the flexible education system, secured a new extensions policy, supported those in isolation, and supported those facing financial difficulties. We launched our Housing Policy Inquiry and engaged with the University on housing issues, our academic reps were also fundamental to our work in term one, engaging in discussions around PGT studies, the equality impact of the pandemic, and the safety of the campus. Although disheartened by the change in guidance at the start of November about student group activity, we were pleased to see student groups really flourish in the online environment and work hard to build communities in challenging circumstances.

The last three months

I was particularly hopeful about term two before Christmas, with the logistical operation of testing looking promising around the return to campus. Sadly this hope was short-lived and we were soon back into a similar situation to that which we faced last March. This brought new challenges, including the issue of accommodation and rent as well as the introduction of a new Fairness and Assurance Policy.

Students have been fundamentally neglected by the government during this pandemic, which led us to launch our We’re Here For You campaign to identify the key issues and practical solutions which we can undertake collectively to address these.

We have also undertaken a huge range of work over these last few months on various areas of the student experience; including launching our Committee Cafes, the Let’s Talk About Sex campaign, introducing regular Q&A sessions with the University, the Seeking Sustainability campaign, our academic societies review, the Academic Rep Conference, and providing articles around the higher education context of the current key issues. I am immensely impressed by the work of the sabbatical officer team at a time when reactive issues have been thrown our way on a seemingly daily basis.

I know it isn’t just me that has found this lockdown much harder than the previous two. Perhaps it’s the lack of sunshine hours here in the UK, or it might just be that it is tiring to still be in this isolating situation. I am hopeful about the roadmap recently announced by the government but I know we still have a long way to go to get back to normality. I for one will be appreciating the little things much more; being able to go to a café for a drink, meeting up with more than one other person at a time, or even being able to just chat to some students as we walk around campus about everything going on.

Where do we go from here?

Reflecting on everything that has changed since this time last year, there are aspects of the new normal that should stay (lecture capture comes straight to mind) but it has also made us realise the sheer value of in-person interaction and the connection within the University community that makes Royal Holloway so special. There is some work that we need to do collaboratively with the University about what the new normal looks like and what University education should look like moving out of the pandemic. It will not stay the same as it was previously, and we have a brilliant chance to build a new education model that works for the students of 2021 and beyond. We are currently planning and looking towards term three, and I for one am super excited about our plans (and returning to the office), assuming everything goes well with the pandemic.

Students have been challenged in a way you never have before, and you have displayed such capacity for adaptation and optimism despite everything thrown your way. We know it hasn’t been easy, this will be a historic year in higher education and your cohort will have experienced something unlike any other. However this year has impacted you, you should be incredibly proud of everything you have achieved.

This last year has been a very interesting, challenging and exciting time to take on the President role. No one expected what has played out since I was elected just over a year ago and I could never have anticipated the skills I needed to develop and the ways in which I have grown over the last 12 months. The pandemic has been hard for so many of us, but I feel incredibly grateful to have been in this role over this last year. Despite all of the challenges, I have absolutely loved every minute of my time as President so far and I wouldn’t change it for the world.