An open letter to Scotland’s education minister

Dear Richard Lochhead,

I am an “Access to Care” student at Fife College, and over the past couple of weeks, I have embarked on the journey of online education.

While I hope that every precaution taken during this time is truly intended for the greater good, I ask you to consider another critical issue: that of higher education students.

Most of my classmates are between the ages of 17-30, with a few being in the 40-60 bracket. The people in the first age category has a very low risk from Covid-19, the latter is at a slightly higher risk.

It is true that technology is at the point where video classes are a viable option and homework can be the only work that we carry out. However, although this is true, people in higher education (namely, colleges and universities) must ask this question: is the small chance of young people possibly suffering from Covid worth the definite suffering of our education, future livelihoods, and systemic poverty? And at a simpler level, if high schools are allowed to be in full time, shouldn’t we?

I know what you may say: it is possible to simply partake in classes online. This is true, to an extent, but the truth is that online learning is very difficult to fully engage in. Allow me to explain why.

1. Difficulty interacting/receiving one-on-one help from teachers

2. Lack of resources typically provided at a learning centre

3. Mental drain from online classes/difficulty with focusing

4. Lack of social interaction/the impact on mental health.

Firstly, teachers in a college can easily have two hundred students which they teach on a weekly basis. While the online platforms may work for teaching, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a teacher to give one-on-one help to a student in this environment. Students with learning difficulties may not receive the help that they need, or face their difficulties being announced in a recorded session in front of twenty classmates if they ask for help there. With teachers having over two hundred students, it is unfair to expect them to provide detailed email feedback or help to every student, something which would have happened during the in-between moments of class time in the past.

Secondly, students may not have the facilities at home to properly complete work. Asking a student to print off an assignment and send it in via pictures is one thing, but what if they don’t have access to a printer? What if they don’t have access to a computer? I could give examples of students in my own course who are currently experiencing these challenges. How would you feel about completing a six-page assignment on your phone?

Sure, today’s pre-nursing students may not get into university and therefore hospitals UK- wide will continue to be understaffed, but at least we, the 17-30 year olds, stayed home in an attempt to ward off a second wave that may never come. And one that, frankly, would most likely not harm the people in our class.

Thirdly comes the basic difficulty of attempting to effectively learn online. Since the start of lockdown, countless studies have shown the mental drain which video conference calls have. Combined this with subjects that require attentive focus for hours on end, and you’ve created the prime recipe for mentally depleted students who struggle to retain information or focus on new topics. Does that sound like a good education?

Lastly, but by no means least important, is the issue of mental health. The UK has seen alcohol abuse nearly double since February. Countless people are struggling with isolation and depression. Students need the classroom. Teachers, forced to spend hours behind a screen talking to a silent audience, need the classroom.

It could be argued that, in this sense, returning to in-person classes could save more lives than refraining.

The college and university students of today become the nurses, doctors, and teachers of tomorrow. Please allow us to go back to the classroom and get a full, uninhibited education. Since many students at college and university are only a year or two older than students currently allowed at high school, it seems non-sensical for us to be barred from in-person learning. Let those students who are in the older age range make their own choice about attending in person- since we have an online option, those who are at risk can stay at home if they believe that would be best for them.

Is shutting down classrooms a productive way to handle this? In the experience of those in online education, it is not. I believe that in ten-twenty years, we will see the result of this educational gap by the lack of employment on a mass scale. This could destroy the suffering economy further.

Moreover, the loss in lives and livelihoods because of mental health issues cannot be underestimated. Please let us go back to class. 

Thank you for your time,

Acacia Mitchell

Photo from Tim Gouw on Unsplash.

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