By: Taariq Amod
Much of the focus in recent times, has been on elementary and secondary school students since schools have returned to operation. Multiple battles have emerged between parents and school governing bodies and equally between teachers, represented by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and the Department of Education. Whilst these battles have been raging, the student voice, it seems, has been lost in the commotion. Even those who, it can be assumed, have the loudest voice in the entire student body of South Africa – students at tertiary level – have had their voices muted since the start of the lockdown level 4. So I’d like to dive into the 2020 experience of a student, at a university or college, and try to return the focus back to these students, their perceived journey and struggles.
Imagine being a first-year student at a university or college in 2020. Rich or poor, the experiences should not have differed very much as in previous years for respective groups. Registration proceeded without much difficulty for the rich and with much difficulty for the poor. The process repeats itself when applied to the search for accommodation, transport or food to non-local, non-residential, self-catering students to varying degrees. Despite these vast differences in experiences, both sets of students had to cope with their new surroundings with varying degrees of success, again dictated by privilege.
A month in and, for the most part, all students were finally settling into a weekly routine. For returning students, barring exceptions, this type of routine was expected. Whether this was comfortable or unbearable, a routine had formed and perhaps this would set the tone for the rest of the semester and hopefully the year. Alas, Coronavirus sought to change that. All the anxiety induced from attending lectures, completing assignments, writing tests under pressure as a student whilst also trying to remain fed and well-slept, was to be compounded by the anxiety of contracting the Coronavirus.
Then the lockdown happened and with it came the closure of public life at these institutions. All aspects of teaching would either be moved online or outside of the university space, confined to the home of the student. Under lockdown level 5, universities and colleges became empty shells – ghosts. At home, however, students struggled with varying degrees to adjust to their familiar surroundings with unfamiliar routines. Returning students had the advantage of having a year or more’s worth of tertiary education under their belt and it could be safe to assume, knew what was to be expected of them despite their struggles.
For first-year students, on the other hand, this was unchartered territory. Almost all had not completed exams or major assignments. This was further compounded by the factor that privileged played in the home setting. Access to data, safe studying environments and other necessities were lacking in poorer student homes. Similarly, poor institutions had failed to distribute equipment and data and so furthered the gap between themselves and the more affluent institutions. Some subjects also require contact learning and there was insufficient preparation to accommodate for this. It looked like a mess.
Under lockdown level 4 there was a slow return to the university and college space even though it was reserved for students studying medicine and the like. Compromises to students ambitions and endeavours overall were seemingly normalised, particularly for first-year students since they were and have not been prioritised throughout the pandemic for seemingly valid reasons. This did not change when the country moved down another level to lockdown level 3 and a third of students were allowed back to campuses and residences. Fast-forward to the month of July and the anxiety of contracting the virus might have dimmed nationally, judging from the overall reaction and inaction of the public towards the continual surge in infections.
The effect of Covid-19 and in particular its effect on the academic year has been devastating, not merely in South Africa but globally. We do not know how long this virus will be with us and certainly, the normal routine will be induced with extra health regulations to prevent its spread and further spreads of any future pandemic. However, I can’t help but pity those first-year students, who to this day and in the future will not know what a ‘normal’ year is supposed to feel like – at least not their first year.
Taariq Amod is the CEO and founder of Vernac News NPC, and currently resides in Johannesburg. He enjoys political and artistic types of media in written forms such as poetry and critical thinking articles and visual forms through paintings, memes and thought-provoking vlogs.