The world has been living with coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, for the better part of a year now. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were originally told that shutting down and staying home for a couple of weeks would be all that was necessary to contain the virus. And yet, normal life is nowhere in sight. We are all trying to maintain normalcy at an abnormal time. And it is not working.
All across the UK, universities are grappling with coronavirus and all of its implications. We even see it here at Cambridge. From “keep your distance” COVID19 signs to those practical policies implemented to guarantee students do just that, there is this constant reminder of coronavirus in our midst.
No doubt university students would love to return to classes without any restrictions or prohibitions. After all, the university years are supposed to be a time of freedom and discovery. Being shackled by coronavirus restrictions only serves to minimise the university experience for so many students.
Universities and Tier 4 Restrictions
Of recent concern to many universities is the implementation of Tier 4 restrictions in some regions across the country. Under such restrictions, people are not allowed to leave or enter Tier 4 areas without a valid reason approved by the government. Universities are relieved to know that travelling to and from school is considered a valid reason. But how many students will be willing to make the trip?
Tier 4 rules are just one step shy of a total lockdown. Indeed, extra police patrols are being deployed in hopes of preventing unnecessary travel to and from restricted regions. How can any of us maintain any semblance of normalcy under such abnormal conditions?
Of course, coronavirus restrictions are not just inhibiting universities. Private businesses and public organisations across the UK are suffering. Businesses are seeing the brunt of it, with the government forcing the closure of a full range of non-essential operations in the most restricted areas in the country.
Making the Best of Daily Life
For many of us, it has come down to doing what we can to make the best of daily life. Those who can safely return to work have mostly done so. Those who cannot have not. And in Tier 4 restricted areas, people who had returned to work are being urged to stay home once again. Trudge on and make the best of things is all we can do.
None of this is by any means normal. Never before in the history of humanity have we attempted to stop the spread of disease by shutting down and self-isolating at a nearly global scale. The scary thing is that this might become the new normal for the foreseeable future.
A New Normal for Universities
Imagine universities like Cambridge and Oxford never being full again. Imagine half-empty classrooms and graduation ceremonies forever conducted virtually. Imagine the entire university system being reduced to a shell of its former self as we are all reminded to stay away and stay home.
The difficulty faced by universities is that they are essentially small towns unto themselves. They are not spread-out towns, either. They are as compact as can be. Universities house thousands of students all packed in together in dense populations pulling from all over the globe. And of course, the social aspects of attending university only encourages more mingling.
Our universities are trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Schools are preparing to welcome students at the start of the next semester. Housing units will be occupied and classes will resume. Professors will give their lectures and conduct their exams. Students will attend class during the day and engage in all-night cram sessions as needed.
Yet behind the veneer of ‘normal’ studies, the risk of coronavirus will remain. It is unavoidable. Viruses are naturally occurring in nearly every environment on the planet. So even if coronavirus is completely brought under control – and there is plenty of healthy scepticism in that regard – there are other viruses ready to take its place. Many we haven’t even identified yet.
Adopting a Virus Mindset
Our leaders want us to adapt to the new normal by adopting a virus mindset. They are constantly encouraging us to keep our distance from one another. They want us to limit contact with people outside of our own immediate families. They want us to avoid large gatherings at all costs. Such restrictions are not as easy to maintain as they might seem. Indeed, the virus mindset goes against everything it means to be human.
Universities are a microcosm of modern society. As they seek to strike that perfect balance between student safety and the need for higher education, some of the policies they implement will achieve the desired goals. Others will not. But student life will go on in some way, shape, or form.
We are all trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy at a very abnormal time. There are no easy answers to any of this. But there is hope. Humanity has overcome past pandemics. Life is changed as a result, but we have overcome. This pandemic should be no different.