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College student: 'There's been no dancing on tables or shots at the bar'

Harry McCann says students involved in recent ‘partying’ are not representative of the majority trying to study and live within Covid guidelines.

Harry McCann

ARRIVING AT THE gates of student accommodation late last week felt rather surreal.

It was over seven months since I had packed my bags and left in the midst of a lockdown. While all had changed in the outside world, everything inside my student apartment felt the same.

Even before the scenes of students partying in Galway this week, it was difficult to imagine I would be here for long. The hustle and bustle in the corridors and the groups of new friends are sights that would send public health officials into a cold sweat.

‘Pressure cooker’

College life at the moment is a pressure cooker ready to blow, and the question has to be: How did we let it get this far? 

Much like myself, thousands of students across the country, many for the very first time, set off to college this week for a new academic year. After a summer of unprecedented events, we came back with energy and enthusiasm for a return to some sort of normal.

The halls of my student apartment have been filled with the sounds of the chatter and laughter of new housemates. This excitement for most has found its expression in low-key gatherings within guidelines.

For the minority, however, it has resulted in drunken scenes that have made headlines and sparked outrage in the media and online. 

It feels now as if the events of recent months are a distant memory. The idea of catching Covid-19 is starting to feel more like an inevitable reality, rather than a distant nightmare. 

My phone pinged and buzzed throughout Friday and Saturday last after the government announced that universities would have to move online, where possible. I had emails from every department and lecturer, all with the same line, “today was a bit of a surprise for us”.

If the institutions were surprised, you can imagine just how shocked students were at the news.

Many of us had travelled across the country to live in over-priced student accommodation and digs with strangers.

Are we safe now?

If I can’t go into lectures, how is safe for me to be in my apartment building, interacting with other students? It’s a tough one because we want to be here, we want to learn.

It’s understandable that people are upset at students, given recent videos of socialising. But maybe it is time people realise that students have been underrepresented and negatively treated throughout this pandemic. 

Despite the government’s request to all Irish universities to introduce enhanced public health protection measures, it has become obvious to many of us that this approach was well short of what was required.

The fallout associated with the reopening of third-level institutions should not have been an unexpected development. Government and college bodies had ample time to prepare.

The UK and France are both in the grip of an increase in Covid infections due to a flurry of outbreaks at universities. The risks have been well publicised both nationally and internationally, we knew this one was coming. 

The science tells us that while young people are less likely to have symptoms, they are still infectious and can spread the virus to others without knowing it. However, it’s also the case that many students are away from home and no longer interacting with older high-risk family and relatives.

‘In youth we learn, in age we understand’

If you take your own personal social responsibility out of the equation and cast your mind back to how you were in your late teens or early 20’s, what would you do? 

My first week back to college as per tradition was celebrated with pints with friends. However, things were far from normal. There was no dancing on tables or shots at the bar.

Instead, we were confined to a table we had booked in a pub with drinks a little too pricey for a student budget. There were moments when life appeared to be back to normal, but they didn’t last long.

Between the masks in the bathroom, and the steady flow of hand sanitiser, it was clear that this was a night out in the time of Covid. As we all come to terms with the realities of the ‘new normal’, college students are trying to come to terms with a seismic shift, just as everyone else is.

We are facing an academic year of uncertainty, part-time employment is lost or at risk, interaction and experiences with friends are limited, life is on pause and all of the important parts of growing up in Ireland are impacted. I think it is important to understand that there is no conspiracy amongst the student population to undermine what has been achieved in curtailing the virus so far.

Most are doing their utmost, but it has been incredibly challenging. Mental health professionals working with adolescents have already recognised that restrictions impact the student population differently.

It is developmentally appropriate for us to prioritise friendships. I believe social distancing from friends takes a much more negative emotional toll on younger people than it would on more mature age groups.

A huge part of growing up is creating social relationships. The urge to socialise, party, and hang-out with friends isn’t coming from a selfish place in many cases. Although, it is obvious that the extent needs to be addressed. 

It was reported at the weekend that students in some colleges would be facing fines and even expulsion for breaking guidelines. In particular, students found to be organising, hosting or attending a gathering.

Maybe it is time for the government to force all institutions to sign up to agreed guidelines on preventing Covid? There may be an argument for fines and some sort of measures to prevent people from losing the heads.

As a student returning to college under these rules, I for one would be making sure that others around me weren’t jeopardising my education for a hangover. I am also quite sure that Mammy and Daddy would be up in arms if they had wasted their hard-earned cash to see their kids back home and locked down again after only a few weeks. 

We need a more proactive approach. We need leadership and not scapegoats. Yes, a cohort of students is letting the greater student population down, but they’re not representing ALL students.

Action is required now before it gets out of hand, and before the minority ruin it for the majority. The educators need to step up to the plate and the Government needs to enforce regulations to ensure adherence. 

Messaging needs to be clear and targeted. I can go onto campus for a pint and a sandwich in a college bar, but not a lecture? There are countless examples of how students were left in the dark about their futures in the past few months. For this reason, the blame for not adhering to guidance cannot firmly sit with students.

The return to college was always going to present issues, and everyone needs to take responsibility for the problems we now face. There definitely is a mindsight amongst students that our indestructible youth will protect us from this pandemic.

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The evidence clearly points to this idea being a myth, but we need to get the message out.

A tweet from UCC student, Ben Quigley trended this week when he spoke about how he was left unable to breathe and “temporarily paralysed from the neck down” almost two weeks after testing positive for Covid. The story from the 20-year left many shocked and made many students (including myself) think twice about our plans for the week ahead.

Maybe Dr Ronan Glynn needs to take a break this week and let Ben take his place at the Covid briefings.

Harry McCann is a 21-year-old student at University College Cork and an award-winning entrepreneur.

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