York student CHLOE WESCOTT reveals what life will be like for young people returning to study in the city

STUDENTS returning to York to study in 2020 face a welcome week like no other.

The Graduate Student Association have assured the student body that they are ‘continuing to work with the University Health and Safety team to risk assess each event’ offered, but this year’s new intake are faced with getting to know the city and each other, largely through a laptop screen.

The GSA have organised a variety of online events from yoga classes to digital escape rooms, and a digital cocktail making class with the Drag Queens at @DragTaste.

The few in-person events offered include an afternoon at Jorvik Viking Centre, and a walking tour of York.

The GSA have also partnered with York’s infamous Ghost Tour departing nightly from King's Square, to offer small group tours. The spontaneity of Freshers' Week has evolved to accommodate students’ safety needs, and event ticket-holders are informed of safety measures including "social distancing, one-way systems, face masks, specific arrival times or other appropriate measures".

Entering my fourth year at the University of York, and first year with the Centre for Women’s Studies, I signed up for a socially distanced walking tour of the feminist landmarks around campus. This in-person and course-specific social event offered by my department was sadly cancelled.

Like-minded students are now entirely dependent on Zoom to connect and network.

An Online Welcome Social promising ‘interactive games and activities’ will be run by the Feminist Research and Career Skills Team, instead.

After unexpectedly graduating online this August, how this academic year will pan out is uncertain.

The chance to connect en-masse with students across all departments and courses is a key part of orientation week.

Student Unions are eager to remind us they have taken several precautions this year, which include ‘holding on-campus events outdoors, limiting certain event numbers, and hosting some events online’, but the spontaneous social aspect of student life has been lost.

Under the national measures introduced by the Government earlier this week, all pubs and restaurants must close at 10pm.

Most will operate with a pre-booking system, and under the Rule of Six, larger gatherings are banned.

This means bumping into familiar faces, and making the leap from academic peers to new friends, far more difficult.

Before the Coronavirus, the national student population lay in the grip of a mental health crisis.

After a turbulent year and the necessary but tough changes to socialising at university, a pandemic of loneliness is looming over the student body’s shoulders.

Conversations around student populations in society at present are often disheartening and unfair.

Students are deemed ‘super spreaders’, with the return to campuses blamed for the coronavirus case spike, and national second wave.

Absent from these discussions is a recognition that some people rely on their student status - specifically their student loan - to survive.

Many of us are financially independent and can't afford to not return to education. Not to mention students with caring responsibilities, and financial obligations to support their families, by providing income.

Young people are more likely to live in bigger households because renting costs in York are more affordable in larger house shares. Students with part time employment are also likely to be working minimum wage jobs, often in the hospitality and service industries. This means we’re interacting with the general public in high volumes and are more exposed to contact with the virus.

We rely on our student status and maintenance loans, particularly with widespread redundancies.

The Government’s engagement with the needs of the higher education sector has been minimal.

Students, despite spending minimal time on campus, are paying full tuition fees.

The University of York responded briskly to the needs of their community in March, developing a Student Support Fund, offering emergency funding for those in crisis.

Educational institutions themselves, however, have received little by way of Government support.

Meanwhile, young people are scapegoated for the UK entering a second wave.

For now, student communities in York are finding new ways to connect and also stay safe.

For me, this involves getting out into the Yorkshire countryside, and making the most of spending time outside in our beautiful city.

Chloe Wescott is a Gender Violence and Sexuality research student in her fourth year at the University of York