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New Covid strain: Students at sea over return to UK varsities

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The uncertainty hovers as more areas of England started facing the toughest tier four Covid-19 restrictions from Boxing Day.

Many UAE-based students, who have returned to the country from the UK for their winter vacation, remain undecided about when to go back to their varsities.

The uncertainty hovers as more areas of England started facing the toughest tier four Covid-19 restrictions from Boxing Day. Mainland Scotland and Northern Ireland started new lockdowns from Saturday. The whole of Wales has already entered lockdown. Politicians in Wales and Scotland have apparently asked universities to phase student arrivals in January.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, many overseas students, who returned to their UAE home to be with their parents, are unsure about their future plans, especially due to the new strain of the virus and the lockdowns.

Neil Bhattacharya, an 18-year-old boy who went to Warwick University, has experienced it all, even as he stepped out his UAE home for the first time, looking forward to the much-longed varsity life.

His mother Madhulika Chatterjee explained: “Initially on the video calls, he seemed happy telling us about his new friends and rugby matches. But soon after, things changed and he tested positive for Covid-19. Although he didn’t face any massive health challenges because of it, I could sense he would get depressed from time to time due to the isolation, despite trying to put up a brave front.”

She added: “Now with this new variant of the virus, I would want to have him stay with us for longer but Neil insists on going back. We haven’t received any notification from the university yet. He thinks we should change his return dates and reschedule it at the earliest, in case borders close again as the situation is quite uncertain there. Neil says he won’t be able to attend the face-to-face classes that they’ve been having and it’s equally difficult and inconvenient to not be near the library. Besides, his accommodation’s rent is all paid up, although that is secondary in front of health concerns.”

Simon Jodrell, a Welsh expat in the UAE whose daughter Mia joined the Bristol University this Fall to study psychology, is concerned due to the fast evolving pandemic situation.

Jodrell said: “My daughter is home for Christmas and we prefer to keep her here longer with us, as the outlook in the UK is still quite uncertain, especially with the new strain of virus emerging and posing newer challenges. Five out of six people in her dorm had tested positive earlier. She was the only one who tested negative. There has been little communication so far with the university about the return of students.”

Parents also underlined that lack of normal university experience has been a hard part during the settling in period for students with cancellation of orientation weeks and switch to online welcomes.

Jodrell pointed out: “We have collectively decided she is going to be taking her lectures online for now. Mia has only had one face-to-face class so far with her lecturer. So many students have already endured enforced isolation with mostly virtual classes and very limited face-to-face contact with faculty and peers.”

While some hope to take advantage of the plans and stay away as long as possible, others are afraid they won’t be able to make it back quickly enough.

Those on practical courses requiring face-to-face teaching, including medicine, nursing and dentistry, sciences which need to use laboratories, are looking to return early.

Leeza George, Indian expat whose son Aditya is studying medicine at The University of Sheffield, said: “We all were looking forward to having him back for Christmas and he was equally excited. His university is due to open on January 18 and we are hoping that the university defers the date of reopening by a few weeks because of the pandemic situation there because otherwise he won’t stay, as it would hamper his learning.”

Therefore, for some students the prospect of more weeks away from the university is not without tension.

George added: “He had practicals where they were expected to dissect a corpse. Some students did it virtually though. But as we all know and as Aditya says you cannot have the same experience unless one is doing it physically, onsite. Therefore, he is a bit concerned about any sudden forthcoming travel restrictions that could lead to a deferment in rejoining the session. But frankly, I’d love to have him around for longer.”

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