A return to normality: worth the risk?

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First term is finally upon us. For my fellow second years, however, this year has brought the reintroduction of something we could previously only dream of: in-person teaching.

Having spent a year only knowing my course mates as black squares on a screen, permanently on mute, only occasionally hearing a stray voice in the empty silence to tell a lecturer we could, in fact, hear them, being surrounded by a plethora of other students is a complete novelty. 

The only other novelty the return to in-person teaching has brought us – a cacophony of coughing engulfing the lecture hall as you attempt to hear your professor explain the guidelines set to protect us from the threat of another Covid-19 outbreak. 

Durham University is one of very few universities in the U.K. to have made the decision to return to entirely in-person teaching for many of its courses. Other top universities, such as Cambridge and Edinburgh, have made the choice to keep lectures virtual, whilst returning to in-person seminars and small group teaching. 

Whilst the return of in-person learning has promised students at Durham an opportunity to finally experience a large part of ‘proper’ university life, it has undoubtedly brought its own challenges and risks. 

Ultimately, there was never going to be a perfect exit strategy from the era of Covid learning

As a disabled student dealing with chronic illness, online teaching gave me and so many others an equal chance in a learning environment removed from the risks of catching coronavirus. Covid-19 can be detrimental to anyone who gets it, but for those of us with predisposed conditions, the mixing of thousands of students across the city presents a real and tangible danger. 

Regardless of the threat of catching coronavirus, adapting to independent university living is difficult for any student, chronic illness, or not. Going into freshers’ week last year having been bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome and glandular fever just six months prior was a challenge in itself, never mind simultaneously navigating a global pandemic. 

The university experience, in general, lends itself to generating extreme pressure on young people to experience the ‘best times of their lives’ in a period which, for the majority, is shorter than the break between summer Olympics. Couple that with an unpredictable and erratic disease and you have a viral Catch-22. 

Students with these conditions often find themselves choosing between saying ‘yes’ to everything and exacerbating their illness or declining and running the risk of feeling isolated from their peers. Despite the disadvantages of online learning, at least it gave many a much-needed excuse to set healthy boundaries and learn to take care of themselves in a university setting. 

Beyond the challenges posed to those with chronic illness, the measures in place to protect students also create hinderances for students with auditory impairment. Placing a lecturer behind a Perspex screen wearing their mask inhibits any chance of lip-reading, something which many students rely on. Although these measures are indeed working effectively to prevent the threat of another outbreak and are doubtless essential for teaching to resume, should it be at the detriment of our peers? 

Ultimately, there was never going to be a perfect exit strategy from the era of covid-learning. In-person access to lecturers is a large part of the university experience students sign up for when making the leap to higher education, and yet, perhaps, the past year has proved valuable lessons in the importance of a compromise between the two. The continuation of hybrid-learning by departments places the onus on students to make the right choice for them — be that jumping off the deep end into a ‘normal’ teaching year, or a combination of that and online learning. 

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