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Coronavirus: Students return to college campuses socially estranged

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The traditional raisin weekend at the University of St Andrews has been postponed until spring due to the pandemic

For many students, their college years are as much about lectures and libraries as they are about house parties, sports teams, and student college.

But for the thousands returning to colleges and universities in the coming weeks, their educational and social experience is likely to be very different.

Measures to minimize the spread of the coronavirus mean that many will switch from conference rooms to online classes and virtual events on socially distant campuses.

BBC Scotland has spoken with students and university leaders preparing for the new term.

'It's not a normal start'

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Gordon Edwards

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Gordon is due to begin a BA in social work at Glasgow Caledonian University

Gordon Edwards volunteers with a support team helping newcomers to Glasgow Caledonian University.

The freshmen week will be online and when the terms start correctly there will be few face-to-face classes.

"There are some people who think, 'This is not what I expected when I went to college,'" said the 21-year-old who is starting a degree in social work this term.

Originally from the north of England, Gordon will move into student accommodation next week.

The government's guidance for housing and campus makes the reality clear: "This will not feel like a normal start to college or university life for a student."

"We are not even allowed to have anyone to help move things, "Gordon said. "Our families cannot enter our rooms."

He added: "I think people are very disappointed with the way the hallway experience is going to be this year – we can go to the pubs, but they didn't win." It won't be a house party. "

And they are concerned that online lessons will affect their studies and their ability to make new friends, he said.

'A very limited student experience'

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Jordan Hunter

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Jordan Hunter says that many students will return to college to find that their classes are completely online.

In many institutions, face-to-face teaching will be prioritized for subjects that need it most, such as medicine and veterinary science.

Students living together may form households, but it is likely that most interactions with classmates will take place via video calls.

"As it stands, the student experience is very limited," said Jordan Hunter, a student of politics and studies at the University of Glasgow Middle East.

As editor of the student-run Glasgow Guardian newspaper, you've heard how anxious many of your colleagues are.

"The Hive student nightclub is closed. Societies cannot meet in person," he said.

"So what is really the student experience besides going to a restaurant or bar or staying in apartments?"

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Universities have had to adapt to social distancing

It is likely that the opportunity meeting colleagues and socializing is more difficult for students who live at home with their families.

Scottish National Student Union President Matt Crilly said some students were "at risk of experiencing further isolation".

He added, "As the new quarter begins, it is critical that stay-at-home students have digital access to support, along with financial and emotional support that reflects the unique challenges that lie ahead this year."

'A bit strange'

Some international students will also find that they have to be quarantined for two weeks when they arrive in Scotland.

] Among them is Sanjana Ramaswamy, a third-year student at St Andrews, who is isolating herself after returning to Scotland from New York for the first time since March.

"At first it was a bit overwhelming, having to stay for two weeks and not being able to leave," he said. "I think it's going to be a bit of a strange year, but I'm very excited."

However, some students have decided not to travel to their universities because they know they will not be in classes.

It means there will be fewer people spending money in the cafes on campus or in the local community.

University of St Andrews Deputy Principal Brad McKay explained: "We have had a large number of students, around 1000 if you include both new and returning students, who have opted for a period of time – some for a full semester, others only for a period of weeks – to begin their studies remotely. "

Change of spaces

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Dan Marshal

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Dan Marshal has been organizing online activities for quarantined students

Classrooms , cafes and student accommodation have also had to be changed to allow for social distancing and other measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Dan Marshal, president of the St Andrews University Student Association, said: "The building is not going to be as close to life as usual."

"Many of our spaces are normally packed with societal events, but most of them will be held online this year."

Andy McGoff, director of finance and operations at Edinburgh Napier University, said they were trying to give students the best possible experience in the safest way.

"Our campus capacity has been significantly reduced; we have dropped to 30% of normal capacity. It has been a costly exercise," he said.

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