The talk of future employers devaluing grades awarded during the Covid-19 crisis has felt surreal. It is a sensation comparable to when you are listening to someone speak your second language, and you believe your interpretation to be at fault, as it is highly implausible that they’re saying what you’re hearing. You think you understand the individual words, but the way they are being put together doesn’t make any sense.
There are difficulties with the “no detriment” policy. That can’t be denied. When gardaí can enforce a six-month arrest for visiting your caravan in Curracloe and the British Prime Minister lies in intensive care, difficulties seem plentiful. Any pretense of normality has to go. Everyone is suffering, students included.
Collectively and individually, people are in pain. Aggravating, prolonging, and pushing this further should be avoided if at all possible. We are being told that it is not possible as the framework can’t accommodate this safety net. If it can’t, then the framework itself needs to change and not the students who occupy it.
I haven’t been able to approach my essays. The material doesn’t make sense any more. Lecturers have done their best and are sympathetic — they are not the problem, I am. I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing this disconnection from college work. Talk of the statistical analysis of intelligence or the psychology of group processes doesn’t cohere right now.
When the college shut down, I moved my books and things to my girlfriend’s house where she was alone. She had, and has, ongoing physical and mental health difficulties. For anyone who has dealt with severe depression or other similar issues, you will know that the two often blend until they cannot be distinguished. When your mind won’t let your body out of bed and you can’t will yourself to swallow your meal, that particular divide loses its meaning.
She’s kind and wonderful and the bravest spirit I know, but she had no one to help her as she was cut off from her support. Her psychiatrist stopped taking appointments and was only interacting over the phone. Her grandmother, who she usually lives with, was in hospital for other tests, and would be gone indefinitely. So me and her settled in, and waited with worry.
Two days later she had a sore throat and her body ached. I could hear her voice rasping and her cough was dry. She was swab tested and we were told a text would come through with the results. We waited. She had attended college, hospital appointments and been all over town in the days prior, and she knew the possibility of a Covid-positive result was very real.
In her garden, I tried to work. We had a group project due which made up seven ECTs of my 60 needed this year. The report was to be submitted online, with a presentation given virtually to support it. She came out to me, deeply upset. Things were worse than ever. The world felt like it was falling apart. She didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. I stifled my reaction, not wanting to make her feel worse than she already did. We made lunch and hoped that things would improve.
They didn’t. Her grandmother was to be released from hospital and would have to come back to the house. We couldn’t be there. There were no “right” options, only ones that had fewer degrees of badness. My own home had my stepdad, a 68-year-old man with underlying health problems. My mother insisted that it would be fine to come home as she would take precautions and act as a go-between and isolate if necessary. I knew if she caught it she would transmit it to my stepdad before any cough came. She knew it too, however she wanted me to return home so she could be the parent and attempt to help despite being helpless.
I took part in the presentation for the project, and I could hear my girlfriend upset in the background as I did. After, we had a few hours to pack and clean and organise. Dettol anti-bacterial wipes felt pointless in a house of soft surfaces. Once at home and upstairs, I howled crying into my girlfriend’s arm at the fact that we were back here. If circumstance decided it, if we slipped up, if we weren’t careful, the man I had grown up with could start to cough and deteriorate and the headlines that had bombarded us for weeks would become very, very real.
After that night, I felt resigned. I was at once angry, in disbelief, and afraid, while simultaneously getting emails in my inbox telling me that the newest lecture had been uploaded. My therapist offered to continue over Zoom — we had been making progress after a failed bout of antidepressants in January but there wasn’t much solace to be found in that now. I was being told by the college that they cared about my wellbeing, but at the same time I was being faced with stories from friends who were fleeing back to their homes, just before restrictions tightened. Doors were being shut, and staying shut, resulting in a disconnect from everything and everyone that couldn’t be bridged.
It is that disconnect, in the context of this absurd and frightening time, that hurts the most. Phrases that made sense before feel surreal. Discussing neurobehavioural interventions and their efficacy has no attachment to my world or the room I am in. I want to try, but I know I am not the same student I was five months ago, and I need the college and the provost to acknowledge that. After 14 days, the text came through with a negative result granting some sense of relief. The pressure has not lifted yet, however, or the hurt and worry healed.
I want to try and put effort in, but I also want it to be acknowledged that my ability to perform academically has been compromised. So many of us are compromised — as carers, and as patients, and as a society. I don’t want to defer my assignments until the end of summer and have them hanging over my head, especially since that option includes uncertainty. Deferring acts on the assumption that things will go back to how they were and society will return to a state of normality.
We don’t know how much better things will be in four months time. We cannot keep pretending that the framework can accommodate this abnormality so easily. A safety net would let me be the student I am now in an extraordinary circumstance. Instead, I am being told that if I can heal and adjust in four months time, I can try again. Alternatively, a Board of Examiners would adjust grades “in the spirit of the approach that no student should be disadvantaged”.
It is hard to glean comfort from this promise. That is not what a safety net is. That is not what a safety net would mean to students like me. A safety net needs to acknowledge the effects coronavirus has had on the student population and accommodate for those effects now. It would then allow the time and space to collectively recover from this trauma without exams looming over us.