I hope you’re all doing as well as you can be and keeping safe. I’m writing this in light of the recent Government announcement of a second national lockdown across England, to offer some words of support and let you know how NUSU will be supporting students over this tough time. The COVID-19 crisis has taken this year in directions we could have never predicted and been the cause of tragedies on a global scale. Everyone has been impacted by the global health pandemic in different ways and it looks like we will continue to be affected for some time to come. It’s a really difficult time to be studying and researching amidst lockdowns, restrictions and the wider sense of anxiety and stress. I’ve just finished my own master’s degree and wrote my dissertation during this crisis so I really get how hard it is to motivate yourself, focus and know how to access resources in this situation. It is undoubtedly hard, but there are options available from the University and NUSU to make it easier. Alongside practical measures for studying, I know that students need greater mental health support and social support to get through these next few weeks of isolation and beyond. In all honesty, I have been struggling with my own mental health too; I say this to let you all know that I really do understand how hard these times are and how it feels to be balancing mental wellbeing alongside everything else. Seeking counselling and taking steps to evaluate my work-life balance has helped me, and I hope some of the advice here can help you.
The new national lockdown restrictions come into effect tomorrow (Thursday 5th November) with guidance available on the Government website to help you understand what it all means. I know that with everything changing quickly, it can be hard to keep up. The higher education guidance is to remain open and students are advised to remain at their current termtime address until 2nd December when the restrictions are slated to be lifted. So what does that mean for you? Really, it means that little has changed from the current way the university has been operating under the Department for Education’s Tier 3 guidance. The blend of online and present-in-person teaching will continue. Study facilities remain open for those on campus, and I really do recommend people make use of these if they feel able to. What I found difficult about the first lockdown was having to write all my semester 2 assignments and write my dissertation from my living room, as I was very much someone who liked the routine and separation of having a day in the library to do work. This time around, it is allowed for students to make use of the university facilities during these four weeks of lockdown.
You can still order books for Click & Collect from the Phillip Robinson and Walton Library. The collection is contactless and you will need to wear a face covering and sanitise your hands to enter the building. You will then collect your book from the box marked with your timeslot and leave the library. Our library books automatically renew so you can keep these for as long as you need, unless someone requests the book. Books can be returned to the libraries and they have contactless drop boxes.
Our various libraries and archives have different opening times and availability, so make sure you check the website to see what you need to do. You can pre-book study space at the Phillip Robinson, Marjorie Robinson (my personal favourite library) and the Walton Libraries. You can book a desk for up to 6 hours per day and can spread this across two bookings – so you could have a bit of a break to grab some lunch and get some fresh air. You need to clean the desk when you arrive and leave and maintain social distancing at all times. Importantly, bookings are for individuals so please do not attempt to make bookings as a group or sit with other people; we need to maintain social distancing measures and ensure the library isn’t becoming too full.
The University has worked hard to utilise spaces across campus for study spaces. You can use the new Room Finder to find the right space for you and find out whether each space has PC or laptop space, is designated for silent study and which faculty-specific spaces are available. There are some spaces available specifically for postgraduates so make use of these where you can! Some of these spaces need pre-booking, some need contact with the relevant school office and some are available to just pop in. Check out the Room Finder to find all the details.
NUSU is here for you and will remain open during the lockdown period. We have the NUSU Hub, our study space open on the top floor of the building, which anyone can use and doesn’t need to be pre-booked. There are a number of PCs available and laptop space too, so it’s suitable for different needs. We’re open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. This space is under-utilised and always quiet, so I do recommend it for postgraduates who want a quiet area that undergraduates might not know about yet.
As well as our study space, the Co-Op will remain open too for all your on-campus food needs. It will be open from 8am to 10pm every day. You can also get Co-Op on Deliveroo which is ideal if you’re self-isolating or would just prefer a delivery. We operate a one-way system and monitor the number of customers in the shop so you can maintain social distancing. Highly recommend their coffee and bakery, especially if you are using our study space and need a quick break and a pick-me-up.
University Student IT Scheme
If you are experiencing issues accessing your online learning or research due to poor internet or a broken laptop (been there, it sucks I know), the Student IT Scheme is available to apply for computer facilities and internet access. The University can help by "offering a laptop loan (or a grant to purchase a suitable device for students based outside of the UK), a grant of up to £200 to purchase internet access, or support accessing software necessary for certain courses". Certain eligibility criteria must currently be met to apply for the support. This includes: being a PGR student; students in receipt of an Opportunity scholarship; students with Student Support Plans, and more. (Check other criteria here).
Apply for the Student IT Scheme report by filling out their form and explaining what you need: If you feel like you're not able to make the most out of your teaching and learning due to limited IT provision, apply for this scheme. With online learning being crucial to the student experience this year, it's vital that students are able to access what they need without worrying about their internet cutting out, or their laptop crashing on important work. Please do apply - there is help here for you. If you need any additional help with the form, or have specific questions about your eligibility, email studentITscheme@ncl.ac.uk.
Mental Health Support
Alongside these practical facilities, I wanted to draw attention to the mental health support available for postgraduate students. I’ve recently shared these in an email to all postgraduates but will repeat them here too. A lot of the mental health services and resources have been running online throughout the pandemic, so little has changed due to the new restrictions.
Postgraduate Assistance Programme
There is a dedicated service for postgraduate students available at the Postgraduate Assistance Programme, provided by the University.
You can sign in with the username 'Newcastle' and the password 'University' to access mental health resources, telephone counselling, and general advice. There are resources for managing stress, anxiety and depression, as well as physical health and mental health at work. It’s all completely free and I encourage anyone who may benefit from them to use this service. They also operate a 24/7 helpline at 0800 030 5182.
Don’t forget, if you feel like you need to speak to someone regarding your mental health, your Student Advice Centre at NUSU is still working online. You can make an appointment with them online by following this link. They also offer specialist resources and advice for academic issues, finance, housing, consumer and employment.
The University Wellbeing Services are available too. You can access counselling appointments, specialist mental health resources and support services, amongst other resources. There are lots of resources and opportunities to seek support, so do have a look at what’s available.
Student Space has released some useful information and resources to support self-isolating students with advice for maintaining wellbeing during periods of self-isolation.
The University has targeted support available for self-isolating students and students who have tested positive for COVID-19. You need to fill in their form to make the University aware of your situation so they can keep track of cases and contact you with the necessary support.
Personal Tutor and Supervisor Support
You should contact your personal tutor or supervisor as your first point of call. They can offer academic advice and pastoral support, and know where to signpost you to more specific support services if you're unsure. You should already know who your tutor or supervisor is, but these are listed in the Newcastle University app if you're unsure. Personal tutors have received further training this year so should be ready to offer the support you need. Sian and I wrote a Student Expectations document (linked on this page) which outlines what students should expect from their personal tutoring relationship, so refer to that if you're unsure what your personal tutor should be helping you with.
Socialising in Lockdown
I know that lockdown takes its toll on our mental health, particularly due to feelings of isolation and disconnectedness from our coursemates and friends. The government guidance on meeting others safely is as follows:
“In general, you must not meet people socially. However, you can exercise or meet in a public, outdoors space with people you live with, your support bubble (or as part of a childcare bubble), or with one other person. You should minimise time spent outside your home. When around other people, stay 2 metres apart from anyone not in your household - meaning the people you live with - or your support bubble. Where this is not possible, stay 1 metre apart with extra precautions (e.g. wearing a face covering).
You must not meet socially indoors with family or friends unless they are part of your household or support bubble.”
This guidance says that it is allowed to meet one other person outside in a public, outdoors space (a park for example) and I would encourage everyone to try to organise a socially distanced walk or trip to the park with a friend or coursemate if they feel comfortable to. We can maintain some human interaction this time around and I really do think it’s important to make use of this opportunity to keep connected in person where possible and where safe. However, social interactions should still be limited to less people than you may usually see, to limit social contacts, so virtual social opportunities are still important.
PG Welfare Drop-Ins
If you’re just wanting a chat with someone to get things off your chest or have a check-in, I will be personally running regular drop-in sessions over Zoom. You can find the information and Zoom links on the PG Hub on the NUSU website. Anyone is welcome to join these or email me to set up a private 1-1 call at your convenience. I’m here to help and if I don’t have the answer, I often know who to ask; so, feel free to get in touch if you need anything or just want a friendly face.
PG Lockdown Events
I recently ran a series of virtual welcome events for postgraduates during the welcome period which were really fun and a great chance to meet postgrads. As we are now entering a period of isolation and limited opportunities to meet other students, I am now planning to put together some events for November too. If anyone has anything they’d like to see, please just get in touch as I’d love help with some creative ideas! Otherwise, I’ll be bringing back the virtual coffee mornings and attempting another quiz too...
Keep in touch
This blog has been quite extensive to let you know about some of the resources and facilities available to support postgraduate education, mental health and social opportunities during this tough time. If you think I’ve missed something out or something is unclear, just get in touch. The best way to contact me is via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I can offer any support at all, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We are living in times we could never have anticipated would affect our lives so much, and if I can do anything to help I will do my best. Outside of the things mentioned in this blog, I am currently working on lobbying the University for clarification and improvement to their funded extensions for PhD students, and working on an open letter to raise some of the key issues experienced by PGR students. I remain in my regular University meetings alongside Sian the Education Officer, raising student concerns and representing the diverse interests of postgraduate students and all students. If you want your issue raising in any of these meetings or need advice on who to send an email to, just let me know. It’s my job to help students, especially now. We all need to do our bit, maintain social distancing and be aware of how our actions can impact on other people. We’re all in this together. Stay safe, look after yourselves and your loved ones and take care.