Source: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Empty_Eurostar_during_Covid.jpg
On Tuesday, November 11th, LSE made a public announcement regarding student travel for the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, in a context of lockdown and a great number of COVID-19 cases, this Christmas stands out as a stressful moment for students across LSE. The Beaver reached out to the student community through a survey to better understand the concerns these new policies create.
Of the 36 respondents, the majority reported a variety of worries especially regarding the possibility of infecting their vulnerable relatives upon their return, which render their Christmas holidays uncertain. Indeed, students reported a high level of stress regarding their return home despite being assured they would receive access to testing before their return. In early November, LSE announced a plan for safe return which concentrates on mass testing students. It supplied both PCR and rapid tests and allowed any willing student to get tested whenever needed. However, this policy did not seem to be enough to ease students’ concerns of being super spreaders and many of them called attention to the uncertain nature of the situation. Furthermore, some surveyed students reported stress related to their obligation to take planes or trains and to be in busy public environments. The pandemic has been a great weight on students’ minds in the last few months and the prospect of going home in this context added another burden, as one student explained to the Beaver: “Personally, I have a lot of anxiety over the virus, so it was difficult for me to handle going to the airport.”
LSE anticipated and has made public its intention to provide support for students staying in the UK over lockdown in a statement published on November 11th, claiming that the school’s “priority is always community wellbeing” and encouraging staff and students to “reach out for support, (…) if you need it.” LSE has also complied with UK Government guidance to move teaching online for Week 11 of Michaelmas Term, allowing for the exodus of students and the self-isolation of those who might need to self-isolate before travelling. Nonetheless, the stress of the situation seemed to affect even students travelling back home, despite the school’s efforts to reassure them.
Although the sample of students surveyed is not completely representative of the students’ plans for the holidays, survey respondents predominantly announced that they planned to leave between the 8th and the 13th of December. Students complied with LSE’s advised mass testing regime, and a significant demand in the period before this short window of departure emerged. The mass testing implemented by LSE as part of its winter travel planning started on November 28 and was organised solely on campus, which implied the closure of testing facilities available previously in student halls. Despite the possible bottleneck situations in airports and train stations and the tightly scheduled testing dates, LSE seems to have faced the situation with much efficiency and has been able to guarantee testing for the big majority of students who asked for it.
The Beaver learned that many students have financial concerns about their rent payments in London during this Christmas season. Some of the surveyed students staying in halls explained their inability to go back home for the break and expressed their request for the school to extend their hall rental contracts free of charge. As an interviewed student emphasised, “Halls should allow 31 week contracts to be extended to 39 weeks without extra costs, since some people simply cannot go home,” and students seem eager to avoid the struggle of finding housing in London solely for the vacations during a pandemic.
Students also worried about rent payments while on holiday. Indeed, since the unexpected breakout of the pandemic in March last year, the topic of rental payments has become increasingly contentious. Students worry that they’ll have to pay rent once again for accommodation that they are not using over the Christmas break. In the current context, the alternative option of subletting is hardly accessible, and students have no choice but to bear the financial costs of this period.
Moreover, the repetitive lockdowns and the extensive Christmas departure period have pushed students to grow increasingly critical of the university fees, which have not been adapted to match the current situation. An interviewed student explained that the “value for money with online classes” was a serious cause for concern. It seems like LSE has not been able to fully justify its tuition price to remote students who have no access to the campus.
A further financial strain was also regarding the ticket prices to go home. Many students have had to delay the booking of their tickets while awaiting the school’s announcement regarding the holidays. This raised concerns that prices paid for train/plane tickets were more expensive for students having to book at short notice. Furthermore, many international students leaving the UK also face lockdowns and quarantines both at home and on their return. The prospect of extended isolation is also a mental strain on students, with many having cited this as a main worry over their holidays.
Visas present another challenge for international students. Several countries, like the UK, have seen rapidly changing policies around international travel in the past months as case numbers fluctuate. One student described their worry over not “being able to return home based on immigration rules and international borders.” Students’ fears of increased difficulties reaching the UK upon their return from holidays seem to have taken shape as the UK announced a third complete lockdown from January 4th. After the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant, travel restrictions were put in place and many countries closed their borders to UK travellers. The UK government has since also announced the closure of schools. LSE has also announced that it would not be supplying testing for students and staff for outward travel, but testing will be accessible for those needing access to campus or are in London. LSE has officially announced on January 5th that all teaching and assessments would be online until the end of the year.