Dear Universities | COVID-19 & education

I have sat in my desk chair for the past three days, for hours on end. I am sat in front of a journal article about the American promotion of democracy in the twentieth century, if you’re at all interested, though I’m sure you aren’t. In the space of around 10 hours, I have made my way through a page, one of 18 for this article alone. I’ve cried, I’ve snapped at my family, and primarily, been numb. I am angry at my inability to work. It is not without trying.

I am lucky to even have a desk to be sat at. Thousands of us have extenuating circumstances that are there without the presence of a worldwide crisis. We might have disabilities, mental illnesses, caring responsibilities, difficult family situations. We might have unstable wifi connections, or don’t have a laptop. We need extensions on coursework, counselling sessions, support with essays, accessible exam arrangements. Students have had their income taken away and it won’t be provided by the government due to 0 hour contracts. None of these situations have gone away with the arrival of COVID-19, and if anything they have just been elevated by us being thrust back into our family homes (or being alone in halls). We cannot be expected to work at our normal capacity during this time, and it is upsetting that we will be judged on work at this time.

Personally, I deal with autism and anxiety along with physical illnesses and dyspraxia. The lack of coordinated and efficient communication from my departments and the university as a whole has meant I have been left confused, uncertain and falling into a relapse; there has been no help for disabled and autistic students to support them in such an anxiety-provoking time. My routine, uni life and plan for the next 4 months has been swiped out from under me, and my anxiety is thriving. My fatigue has taken over, after hours of sitting up and attempting to force myself through work; my chronic pain has also gone nowhere.

I’ve also been chucked back into my family home, one that is full to the brim with 7 people including 3 younger siblings with their own combinations of conditions, and our nan, who is also extremely anxious given the situation and the fact she is only recently out of hospital herself. It’s loud, busy and messy; everyone is worried and stressed. Our wifi is struggling to cope with several of us working from home – I’ve been having to switch to 4G to use Zoom and Skype, and I only have a limited amount of that. Surely I, and thousands of other students, can’t be expected to work as normal in this capacity?

I have limited resources for my coursework – yes, there is a lot online, but history is much richer in print – and my group project is going absolutely nowhere. How are we meant to organise a group project when everyone is just attempting to survive and support themselves and their families, with their never-ending combinations of individual circumstances?

There is no comfortable format that exams can take. Take-home 24 hour exams may be significantly difficult to be taken in homes full of other people, an atmosphere full of anxiety and noise. I can’t access my exam arrangements at home; they are the only way I can properly, fairly and effectively take my exams. Adding more coursework isn’t fair to those who are better at exams, and coursework is hard enough as it is right now. This is a difficult and unprecedented situation, and I do not blame you for trying to work everything out – but I implore you to consider how difficult this is for us as students, and consult us. Please tell your students each step of the process, because it can make such a difference to those of us with autism and similar conditions.

I know you’re trying, and you might not be actively working against us. But I am tired, and I cannot carry on this way. My first year has been extremely difficult and I’ve dealt with a lot, and I have worked through it. But this is something unfathomable, something no-one can quite believe is happening. Our well-being as students needs to be taken more seriously; we cannot be expected to work as if everything is normal.

I feel lucky that I’m a first year, and I’m remembering to check the privileges I do have in this time. But it isn’t even really about the grades, for me – it is the pressure and stress about getting the work done at all, let alone getting the marks that I’ve been getting throughout the year. It is hurting me, exacerbating my symptoms and it’s beginning to affect my family.

Please consider whether uni work should be continuing at this time, and whether exams need to happen – and where they do, the form they will take and when they will take place. Consider the individual circumstances of your students and do not see us as one single body. I beg you to consult us and understand the difficulties that some of us are dealing with during this period, and that are present away from it too.