How students are coping in quarantine as the University of Sheffield reports 1000 positive coronavirus cases.

It’s either day eight or nine of 14 in quarantine and an NHS volunteer from the Track and Trace programme has just woken me up from my third nap of the day with a phone call. They’ve kindly reminded me of my legal duty to continue isolating and that there’s a possibility I may develop symptoms at any moment and will have to start the isolation period again.  

While I’m crawling the walls, I’m fortunate enough to have not suffered any symptoms of Covid-19 (yet), unlike my housemate who is still suffering from fatigue and aches following her positive test at the beginning of last week. 

For me and a growing number of students in Sheffield, quarantine is the new reality of studying at university. 

Moving back into our house of six meant lowkey belated birthday celebrations from lockdown, and socially-distanced catching up with coursemates in the park. It wasn’t until Saturday that Amelia, my flatmate, woke up with a snuffly nose and a sore throat – classic symptoms of a cold; but on Sunday when she lost her sense of smell and taste we drove to Meadowhall for a test. The following day she received the text that she was positive for Coronavirus. 

I remember sitting in the hallway on the other side of her bedroom door when I asked my housemate Amelia Emmerson, 20, a third-year English student, how she was coping. 

“There’s definitely an aspect of fear but I haven’t woken up thinking I’m about to die. You can think about things into oblivion, and if you worry too much you’re just going to drive yourself mad, but I think because I’ve just been sleeping so much I haven’t really had the chance. 

“I thought it was going to be negative, like I really didn’t expect it to be positive. When you’re younger there’s this sort of image where everyone’s immune to it which is probably the wrong outlook to have.”

The University of Sheffield recorded 474 students and a further five members of staff that tested positive in the first seven days of the new academic year. On Friday 2 October, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) updated the UK’s R number estimate to between 1.3 and 1.6. This means that for every 10 people infected, another 13 to 16 other people will be infected as well. It is rumoured that there are close to 100 flats in isolation across university accommodation in Endcliffe, Ranmoor, and Allen Court.

Being assigned to a flat with people you may have nothing in common with is daunting enough, but this year, new students can’t even meet their new coursemates, and the few face-to-face teaching hours aren’t guaranteed to continue.

First year is typically a blur of names to faces you can’t match, flat parties, five-pound rounds in Tiger Works and Saturday’s Pop Tarts at the Students’ Union. But with the new government curfew at 10pm and gatherings no bigger than groups of six, 2020 marks a new era of staying at home for students with no end in sight.

To gain better insight, I rang a first-year General Engineering student, Niall Devlin, 18, who recently moved into a five-person flat in Endcliffe and tested positive for Covid-19 just over a week later. 

“Three of us have tested positive, and [another flatmate] is doing a home test today, and the other knows he’s going to get it so isn’t bothering with a test. But at least we’re not confined to our rooms because we all have it. 

“We all assumed it was freshers’ flu because we all had blocked noses and were sneezing a lot but I got a test anyway and it was positive.”

The University has set up many outlets of support for students in isolation, particularly for those in university accommodation. Their website states they will offer support in shopping for food and other essentials, and provide details of local collect and deliver laundry services. However, the University is advising students to wash their own clothing in their hand basins. 

“The uni have sent a few emails saying there’s help available if you need it but then haven’t shown where you can get it,” Niall says. We’ve had a couple [of] calls from Residence Life offering mental health support but even so I think you’d struggle if you were on your own for two weeks. If I was on my own I’d have gone home for the isolation period.

“A lot of us think we’ll be sent home at some point, but for now I think it’ll just carry on as it is.”

For many of us students there’s a fear that it will be text after text from NHS Test and Trace telling us to quarantine in our clapped-out student housing as people will continue testing positive and we never see daylight again. Is it worth being in Sheffield at all when almost all teaching is being done remotely, and another lockdown seems to be just round the corner? 

Third-year Law student, Ollie Amos, 20, was texted as a contact of Amelia’s and has had to isolate in his house for 10 days while the rest of his house has continued as normal. 

“I’ve probably had one fleeting conversation with [one housemate] but other than that I haven’t had a conversation with anyone in person in a week. It would be nice to have a conversation with someone but you just know you need to [isolate] and it’s not really that long.

“If [the government] had just said that there wouldn’t be any face-to-face teaching then a lot of people would’ve stayed at home and not worried about signing up for accommodation,” Ollie said. “By doing what they’ve done, they’ve prioritised landlords’ financial safety over students’ physical health; but whether it was out of malice or sheer incompetence I don’t know.”

While the future for university students continues to be an uncertainty, what we do know is that we can’t let the restrictions stop us from enjoying another year. It’s a year like no other which, while not Instagram-worthy, may be filled with focusing on perfecting the Yorkshire brew or watching everything Disney Plus has to offer.  

Keep washing your hands, try to maintain two meters apart from people you don’t live with, and if you’re in quarantine, as the NHS keep reminding me, focus on creating ‘daily achievements’ to make each day more bearable: wake up and go to sleep at normal times, and keep eating three meals a day. Soon enough we’ll be outside again breathing in that sweet polluted air of Sheffield.

I have contacted the University of Sheffield for a comment but they have not given a response yet. 


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