University of York student Chloe Wescott reflects on the impact of Covid restrictions on Freshers who she calls "the loneliest generation"

Freshers Week in 2020 was like no other. Despite the drastic rebranding and change in the events programme, The University of York and York St John University welcomed thousands of new students.

This term, Campus West at University of York looks a little different. In August, The University of York responded to students' concerns about the lack of socially distanced venues on campus by building The Forest.

The Students' Union announced it would be a ‘vast festival site complete with tents, outdoor seating areas, bars, food trucks and more’.

They opted to extend the Freshers Week programme, expanding the events timetable across the whole of term one, and made booking mandatory to combat overcrowding.

This new outdoor space has hosted a variety of events including quizzes, DJ sessions, comedy nights, yoga sessions, workshops and performances since September.

The university says this new venue allows them to "offer student jobs on campus at a time when finances are a real concern" for many while the pandemic "continues to impact the availability of the retail and hospitality jobs that have traditionally provided part-time work opportunities for many students". Additionally, "covered, outdoor spaces" will be installed at both The Courtyard and The Glasshouse: the only venue on Campus East, and remain there permanently. Providing outdoor spaces to socialise is vital.

However, these building projects do not meet students' needs for the university to facilitate connection in such turbulent times.

This assumption overlooks the seriousness and depth of the impact of this pandemic on students' mental health and reports of loneliness. The emotional hangover of Covid-19 will be as permanent as these shiny new buildings.

One hundred yards from The Forest lies the on-campus accommodation of Vanbrugh student halls. Thousands of young people are living on campus in flats of six-12 people. It is in small bedrooms like these that students are spending the majority of their time, now all teaching must be delivered online and outdoor groups are limited to six. Shockingly, students self isolating in halls were even told last week to stay in the building one minute after others if a fire alarm goes off. When voicing concerns about the sudden isolation and seclusion that comes with university life in 2020, the conversation is often steered towards nightlife, but students in York face tough days ahead.

For many working entirely from their campus accommodation it means going from high supervision environments in school to being completely self motivated. Young people find themselves carrying full responsibility and accountability for their work/life balance. They do so without physical and fulfilling access to the support network the universities work so hard to create for new students, to facilitate this transition.

It is a time of great uncertainty for all of us. For students, this sparks an ever-growing concern for what our futures hold.

While some who arrive in York settle quickly, other students don’t.

Counting down the weeks until my first visit home, when I moved here four years ago, was a lifeline that helped me to adjust, and students don’t have the luxury of that coping mechanism now.

Many of us are unable to return to hometowns in tier 3 restrictions.

Most of us worry whether we will be able to return home for Christmas.

Conversations about students' struggles in the midst of this pandemic are often limited to topics of the closure of clubs, and pubs shutting at 10pm.

Rarely is there space for the discussion of our social needs on a much more basic level.

The day, for thousands of students, includes little more than waking up, eating, reading, attending a video call, perhaps leaving to go for a walk and returning to their rooms.

This new chapter of Fresher’s lives is overshadowed by loneliness.

We have to think of the young people who came to university, promised a balance of online and in-person teaching, and the chance to mingle.

Those who come to university searching for a queer network, for connection and acceptance, the chance to find people they get on with. Those who learned English and worked to move to the UK to pursue an education in York.

We must think of those who have to work and study in order to support themselves or their families, perhaps carrying guilt for putting their housemates at a health risk, but without much choice.

Those who are not leaving their accommodation often due to health-related anxiety, those who are self isolating, or who find campus outdoor spaces inaccessible.

Those unable to return home for Christmas to relatives who are shielding, who perhaps have disabled siblings like me, or are under the care of grandparents who now have to turn them away to protect themselves.

Eighteen year olds across the country find themselves making such tough decisions. International students, care leavers, those who are financially independent at 18 and rely on a student loan, and students who are legally emancipated, are all facing additional struggles.

Students are facing unique challenges in this pandemic, finding ourselves with huge personal responsibilities for ourselves, each other, and our academic community.

Meanwhile, York city centre is adapting to become ‘Covid safe’. These new ways of moving around the world: wearing masks, using hand sanitiser, are just about working for the majority of the population. Unfortunately, city centres remain inaccessible for much of the disabled student population. Those with long-term health conditions that cause coughing face micro-aggressions daily when moving around public spaces, facing dirty looks, eye rolls and tutting from the public. Students with sensory processing differences often find discomfort in using hand gel constantly when drifting around town, trying to explore the city they moved to in hope of building a new home in York.

Even when using sunflower lanyards to signify mask-exemption and hidden disabilities, moving around public spaces then means facing judgemental grimaces from other shoppers.

We must acknowledge the state of pained reflection many students exist in, constantly wondering how long we will be left in limbo. Students are making adult decisions independently, cut off from their support networks, living with others they do not yet know very well. Young people are finding themselves suddenly entirely independent and unsupervised, doing really tough academic work, possibly unable to get out and access the city.

When we say students have it tough and are missing the social atmosphere of university life pre-coronavirus; we don’t mean binge drinking. We are referring to the connection, support, and companionship that defined life on campus.