Three years ago this week, West Lothian College closed its campus doors for five months as a result of the first lockdown caused by the coronavirus.
All students and most staff had packed up the previous week, taking home equipment like laptops, whiteboards and office chairs to continue working and learning, albeit remotely.
None of us knew what lay ahead and very few of us expected it would be two and a half years before we could return freely to campus.
It all felt very unreal, yet staff did incredibly well to adjust to the unprecedented change forced upon them and support as many students as possible to complete their qualifications that academic year.
As the months went on, the seriousness of the pandemic became clearer. The following academic year (August 2020-July 2021) was, without doubt, the worst year that college students had experienced in their lifetime with the majority having to learn remotely for the whole year as well as coping with strict societal restrictions.
In 2021-22, our college did really well to have around 60% of our students on campus for most of the year, but we had to make hard choices about who had to continue to learn completely online. The year was especially hard for young people who started a higher education qualification straight from school. The prospect of another year of uncertainty and disruption added acutely to an already anxious cohort of students.
Finally, in August 2022 almost all of our full-time and many of our part-time students returned to campus-based learning. While blended learning offered convenience for students with caring responsibilities, feedback gathered throughout the previous two years showed that the vast majority of students wanted to return to mainly on-campus learning. It is very clear how much being back in a physical learning environment and engaging in-person with lecturers, support staff and their peers is impacting positively on our students.
Each pandemic year has brought its own challenges and restrictions, and I have been extremely grateful for how well college staff have adapted to these – especially as they faced their own pressures over these difficult years.
Many were anxious about the return to campus in August 2022 and the first few months were hard for some as they rebuilt their confidence in being back amongst large groups of people. They, like our students, then had to deal with a cost of living crisis that shows little sign of abating.
We are still dealing with the consequences of the pandemic years. We still don’t know the extent of the effect of the pandemic on the development of young people. Even before the pandemic, the younger generation (Gen Z) was exhibiting higher rates of depression and anxiety in this increasingly volatile and uncertain world.
Some school leavers moving onto college courses are struggling as a result of what they missed out on over two years of disruption caused by the pandemic. We are seeing gaps in knowledge and personal development, and increases in negative behaviour and safeguarding cases.
We are supporting our students through this, and our college goal of leading with vision and empathy has never been more important.
Our college prides itself on being welcoming to all.
We seek to inspire and enable success, and our staff do amazing work to achieve this.
They really care, and their commitment to our students is hugely impressive. I know that this will make a huge difference to the lives of our students this year and in the years ahead.
Great insight Jacqui