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23 March 2021  |  Long-read

The pandemic one year on

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the whole of society over the last year in many ways. One demographic hit especially hard has been university students – a million-strong community across the country.

A year on from the first national lockdown in March 2020, we look back at the impact on our own students at Hallam, the support we have offered them, and how they in turn and have helped the local community through this unprecedented year.

A student wearing a face mask, speaking to someone blurred out in the foreground.

Sheffield Hallam is one of the largest universities in the UK. In 2020 we had a student population of over 32,000, with 3,600 of those from overseas. Within this community we educate more students from under-represented backgrounds than any other UK university and 41% of our students come from low-income households.

We are very proud of our commitment to removing barriers and opening up opportunities for people from all backgrounds so that they can shape their own futures. But this also meant that our students were disproportionately vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19 when it struck.

Before the pandemic, many of our students relied on part-time jobs to help support them through university. When the lockdown measures came into place, the closure of many service, hospitality and retail based businesses resulted in students being left without flexible, part-time work that was vital to sustain them.

In addition to financial concerns, it became clear that some students were also experiencing digital challenges. This included no access to WiFi or computers, having depended upon using the technology on campus, which was now closed due to lockdown measures.

And the challenges didn’t stop there. Isolation due to illness, pre-existing physical or mental health conditions, estrangement from families, caring responsibilities, international students unable to return home or UK students studying overseas unable to return to the UK – not to mention ongoing studies.

A student wearing an open grey shirt over a white t-shirt, with a black face mask

Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Chris Husbands said: “The last year has been particularly tough for our students. They have had to adapt to new ways of living, learning and engaging with their peers, adjusting their expectations of the wider university experience in what has been a very different 12 months.

“I have been impressed by their adaptability and resilience in the face of enormous challenges. As the country begins to ease Covid-19 restrictions, we will continue to make sure we support our students and graduates to a successful future."

Helping our most vulnerable students

In supporting the most vulnerable students, so far we have provided more than £3.8 million in financial hardship funds, IT equipment, essential food supplies and delivery to self-isolating students, and organised the repatriation of our students who were abroad and couldn’t get home.

More than 800 self-isolating students received additional support over the past year. Boxes of essential food and basic provisions have been provided free of charge and dropped off at their term-time addresses. Over 1,000 food boxes have been distributed over the last year including over the Christmas period.

A digital hardship scheme was created to support students during remote learning. Through this scheme we have awarded nearly £2million – providing more than 4,500 pieces of much needed technology and equipment to students including laptops and printers.

In March 2020, we launched the Coronavirus Emergency Appeal in addition to our ongoing Hallam Fund. Our community of alumni, staff and friends showed their support to our students and contributed to the emergency response, successfully raising £135,000 through gifts from 337 donors over four months.

In addition to this we received £1million of funding from the Office for Students to help students experiencing rent-related hardship. We are still working with accommodation providers to urge them to be as flexible as possible with our students, including an open letter from the Vice-Chancellor and President of the Students' Union to encourage consideration of refunds, discounts, or flexibility with contracts. We also continue to press the Government for further support for students in our city and across the country.

Mental health and wellbeing

The impact of isolation on mental health has been devastating for people across the country. For students away from home and potentially in an unfamiliar environment, that impact has clearly been magnified.

At Sheffield Hallam our support services have been available to students throughout the pandemic, both online and over the phone, including counselling, wellbeing, mental health support, and inclusive support. We have also collaborated with leading mental health charity Mind run online mental health workshops for students as part of the Mentally-Healthy Universities programme.

Our ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ campaign was created to ensure regular promotion of the five ways to wellbeing and remind our students of the support services at Hallam. The campaign works in line with the student journey, so at peak times of year for assignment and exams, specific support is promoted to support students with their studies.

In addition we have created an online mental health community Togetherall, which provides a safe place for students to connect and access advice at any time. This features a range of self-help resources, videos and links with information and includes a weekly drop in session to support student's mental health and wellbeing. We have worked collaboratively with colleagues and Students Union officers to embed positive wellbeing information and advice about support services across the University.

A series of eye-catching illustrations called Frontline created by Hallam graduate Emily Williams during lockdown.
One student created art work for a charity auction

Our students giving back

We are very proud that many of our students, despite the many challenges the pandemic has brought, have given their time to volunteer and fundraise, continuing to make a difference to the city and the wider region in a positive way. This has contributed significantly towards our overall response to the pandemic.

In April 2020, more than 600 final-year nursing and allied health students volunteered to join the NHS workforce immediately and help battle the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the year our Student’s Union sports teams have rallied round and generated hundreds of pounds for numerous charities, collected food for local foodbanks and raised awareness of different causes, doing their bit to help those in need. The mental health of our students and the local community has been given a boost by one of our post-graduate students who runs the Happiness Bootcamp – exercise classes to lift the spirits and manage anxiety. Several of our talented art and design students have used their skills to raise money for the NHS and other charities by creating eye-catching art for sale.

These are just a few examples that illustrate the tireless hard work and positivity our students have demonstrated throughout the last year all the while continuing their studies and coping with the myriad of challenges the pandemic presented.

Returning to campus safely

One year on from the first lockdown in March 2020, we are now supporting a staggered return to campus for students who need essential practical experience and activities to successfully complete this year’s studies. This includes courses such as engineering, architecture, cyber security and art and design. All other students are continuing remote online learning. This will be reviewed by the Government after Easter – and we look forward to welcoming our students back to campus as soon as is safe and reasonable.

Before returning to campus for the first time, whether for teaching and practical activities or to use the libraries or study spaces, students are being asked to take two Covid-19 tests three days apart and continue to take regular tests thereafter. We are offering tests through our asymptomatic testing centre on campus. The information all sits on a dedicated area of our website which students can access to find out how we are keeping them safe on campus.

A student wearing a black mask, open grey shirt over a white t-shirt, in an art/textiles practical space, using hand sanitiser

Looking forwards

As the University looks towards a phased reopening of the campus, and the vaccine and testing programmes expand at great pace, there is reason to be optimistic. But this must be met with recognition of the great sacrifices that our students and society at large have made over the last 12 months.

Our students in normal times would right now be enjoying a life-enriching university experience. And whilst we continue to make the experience as positive as possible, it cannot be ignored that students (and all of society) have faced one of the worst global crises since the Second World War.

In response we have launched support packages for the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021. Designed to address the challenges our final year students will face as they graduate, they give access to a huge range of activities, employer internships and resources to help graduating students to thrive.

As well as our own programmes of support, our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, has also committed to further lobbying the government to put in place a more comprehensive package to recognise the impact on this generation of students and young people.

This commitment to people – students, staff and our local communities – is what makes us Sheffield Hallam University. We have a mission to shape our students’ futures, preparing them for whatever they choose to do, and create knowledge that provides practical solutions to real world challenges. From the City Campus to Collegiate, and everywhere in between, we look forward to welcoming back our students and staff to meet this vision head on. They are needed now more than ever.

 

Contact the press office

For help with a story or to find an expert

Email: pressoffice@shu.ac.uk
Phone: 01142 252811
Twitter: @shupressoffice

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