I wrote this blog almost 2 weeks ago, after being invited to share some reflections on the excitement surrounding the start of a new semester. Since then we have seen the rise in cases on campus. However, I have left the blog unchanged, except for a concluding sentence. The fast changing campus context is a reminder of the strangeness of the times. And a lesson that no mortal can know what lies ahead.
Arriving at church was enlivened by students milling around outside the Glasgow University sports building. Alongside queues in Pret and parents unloading belongings outside flats in White St. It resonated signs of some familiar normality returning!
I am back commuting to Dundee. Yet my WhatsApp is ringing with worried contemporaries who have just dropped their offspring off and are deeply disappointed.
A friend with children at St Andrews bemoaning students being cleared off the beach by the police. Thereby driven back into halls for illicit parties.
Other friends objecting to students having their matriculation cards confiscated and confined to hall bedrooms for transgressing a rule on social distancing.
Endless frustrations about online freshers week, all students societies having to meet online, largely online classes and the isolation of quarantine for incoming international students.
And it is not just here …
A Canadian friend whose British-educated son has just started at Toronto, finding no face to face inductions, alone in a hall of residence in a new city and all classes on line.
Another friend whose highly-achieving daughter has just deferred her final year at Princeton because she could not take the loneliness of remote online learning.
COVID strikes without fear or favour.
So what is to be done? As with so much else about COVID, we need compassion and the ability to empathise.
The academic staff, trying to teach everything (including lab work, anatomy, practicals and fine art) online to students who are typically more adept with online tools and techniques than their teachers.
The students, looking forward to the freedoms of university life after losing the last 6m of their school and social lives. Each desperate to move on, to make new friends, to go out and do all the things that students typically do.
The university leaders, trying to keep the whole show on the road, despite all the unforeseen contingencies of lost income (fees, halls, catering) and the new financial demands (hardship funds for students unable to work, new software to support online learning, networks powerful enough to serve students scattered around the globe and laptops for those without).
The lowly paid halls staff, campus cleaners and maintenance staff, now as frightened as many care home workers, wondering what risks the students pose to them and their families?
The Government, knowing our public health systems are already vastly overstretched, compelling universities to manage the public health, discipline and policing for each residence, private flat or house in multiple occupancy, demanding we throw the book, including expulsion, at transgressing students.
It is a heady brew. So it is sometimes challenging for everyone to ‘keep the heid’!
As Liz noted in her recent blog, who amongst us have not occasionally, or inadvertently, transgressed the fiendishly complex regulations?
As Norman noted in his blog, he misses the extra curricular activities that give his life meaning and purpose. The students are pinning to make new friends and get on with their lives.
Our universities are not heroic in the way the NHS or care settings are during a pandemic. Yet, they are still arenas for acts of kindness and wisdom. We have established a new staff-student mentoring system. A sort of ‘adviser of studies’ for everything that is not your studies to help students find their feet in a new city.
Those timeless Christian injunctions of welcome, compassion and hospitality are as relevant as ever. The Good Samaritan could not end every robbery on the road to Jericho. But he did act on what was in front of him.
Inevitably there will be students, and staff, who fall between the cracks this autumn. Yet the hopeful Biblical injunction is to keep trying, to keep learning and not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by worry.
I don’t doubt the news headlines between now and Advent will bring stories of student bad behaviour and administrative incompetence. Yet, in the midst of it all, try and recall the one million young people are being enabled to get on with their lives and learning this autumn.