In a large, yellow brick building in north west Glasgow, just over 1,000 students are experiencing their first week at university. Under normal circumstances, this would involve getting drunk on WKDs, going on mildly offensive pub crawls and pretending you know how to smoke cigs. But freshers week in 2020 is anything but normal for the residents of Murano Street Student Village.
Last week, students at the University of Glasgow’s largest halls experienced a mass coronavirus outbreak, something universities across the country had feared. When 124 students tested positive for the virus (a number that has likely risen), the university imposed an accommodation-wide lockdown, forcing over 1,000 first-year students to self-isolate in their first weeks living away from home.
The reality of the situation for these students is dystopian. The Facebook page for Murano publicises events including, “Find a Mate Whilst You Isolate: Online student mixer” and “Glasgow Uni Irish & Northern Irish Society quarantine pub crawl”. Students stick Post-It notes to their windows, messaging the outside world for more beer. This is what their university fees are paying for: to sit in a room, away from people they know, as they complete their studies entirely online.
Becca Leslie is an 18-year-old student from Aberdeen studying film and TV studies at the University of Glasgow. She tells VICE News about the reality of self-isolating at Murano.
“When I first got here, it was very, very lonely”
Leslie arrived at Murano in early September, and was the first person to move into her 12-bedroom flat. “When I first got here, it was very, very quiet,” she says. “A lot of people were here in 12-person flats but their flatmates hadn't arrived yet, and it was very, very lonely.”
“I had to have the windows open since it was hot, and all I could hear was people outside having fun,” she continues. “It was not a good experience, but I think that it definitely did lay the groundwork for people feeling that need to socialise with other people. If you didn't, you were sat there by yourself and the first time away from your parents and completely alone.”
“You can't really social distance in a small flat”
Before the outbreak, some students had small flat parties, which would be shut down by the accommodation security team. Students then started socialising outside in large numbers, mixing between households. Murano has a reputation for being the “party halls”, so Leslie and her flatmates saw some inevitability to the outbreak.
“We did try and avoid it, but you can't really social distance in a small flat with 12 people, and you can't really social distance in a building where you're passing other people in staircases, [and] you can’t really social distance when you're sharing the same laundry, the same facilities,” she says. “I think we all just sort of said: ‘You know what, it's all gonna spread either way, so we might as well have fun with it.’ We're dumb 17 and 18-year-olds. I don't really know what they expected to happen.”
As the socialising increased, so did the police presence at the halls. “Police started patrolling around,” Leslie says. “It really did feel like a prison. It was insane. I do understand they were doing it out of concern for our safety but we really shouldn't have been here in the first place if that's what they were so worried about.”
“We saw that someone had tested positive, and we were like, ‘Oh, it's happening’”
In the following days, more people started to test positive. “I would just get messages from friends I’d made from those gathering being like, ‘Oh, our entire flat is self-isolating now,” says Leslie.
“I think I remember, we were all in our flat in our kitchen, and we were looking through the Murano group chat and we saw that someone had tested positive, and we were like, ‘Oh, it's happening way sooner than we expected’.” she says. “Obviously, it only takes one person in a 12-person flat for it to spread to everyone because you're sharing showers, you're sharing a kitchen, you're sharing two toilets between 12 people.”
Leslie’s housemates also started to exhibit symptoms. Two of them tested positive at first, then another three. “Now at this point, it's five people who have tested positive, and seven of us trying to avoid them but also not, because there’s no real point,” she says. “We're all waiting results, which I don't think are going to be negative.”
“I don't really know what to do”
“When I heard that all of the isolation was coming in, I was like, ‘I don't know how I'm going to survive with this,’” says Leslie. “‘This is actually horrible. These are people that I've barely even spoken to and they're gonna be like my family now.’ It was definitely hard to get used to and I think it hasn't really sunk in for a lot of people.”
The reaction to the quarantine varied between students, but everyone has largely abided by the rules. “Some people are a lot more scared of getting it, and some people are like, ‘Well, fuck it’,” she says. “I'm more in the middle. I have been spending a long time in my room because I have classes and assignments to do, which is another thing that's really difficult to focus on.”
"All the people that do have coronavirus, they've been sitting together, they've been socialising," adds Leslie. “All the people who have tested negative, some of them aren't leaving their rooms at all. I don't really know what to do. It's hard to gauge what's the most important thing. Is it not going insane in my room or is it not suffering from the physical effects of the virus?”
“We're all trying to get food deliveries”
Without friends or family in the area to help, Leslie and her housemates have been relying on food parcels from the company that manages the Murano halls. “We're getting food deliveries,” she says. “You call the [company] and they basically provide you with little bags of dry food. It's nothing nutritious. It's basically beans and Mug Shot pasta, instant noodles and cookies, crisps and juice boxes (because we're children). There was nothing fresh, and there was nothing that you can really have a balanced diet on.”
“We're all trying to get food deliveries from Tesco and Morrisons,” she adds, “and we can't find a booking because there are so many people trying to get a delivery slot. [There’s] no fruit, no veg or nothing. It's already running low, and there have been delays.”
“We didn't need to be here. That's what's causing me anger”
While Leslie is coping in her halls, she is particularly frustrated with the way that Glasgow University has handled the situation. “The thing that frustrates me is the fact that in July, we put our deposit down for the accommodation,” she says. “That was £600 and we can't get that back now. At that point in time, they did not tell us that all of the classes would be online. We thought that at least some of them would be online but we thought, of course, we're going to need to be in Glasgow for university. But it turns out that we didn't actually need to be here because all of our classes are online.”
She continues: “But we're here, we're suffering, we’re not able to see our parents. We're not able to see anyone. We're just able to see people we've known for one week. We could have been doing our online classes, we didn't need to be here. That's what's causing me anger.”
“I think there is a growing group of people who are very much not wanting to pay their rent”
I ask Leslie what’s next for the students. How does she feel about the rest of her first year at university? “I think I am upset, quite worried,” she says. “I think there is a growing group of people who are very much not wanting to pay their rent.”
“[Socialising in halls] is basically the only reason why we came here,” she continues. “Murano is known as being a very sociable flat. Why open these flats which are very much infamous for being party central? Of course this was gonna happen. It pains me to see that a lot of people are so angry at students. They handed this to us on a silver platter. They can't blame us.”
VICE News approached the University of Glasgow for comment on the quarantined first-year students. A spokesperson told VICE News: “We were clear with our students that much of the first semester would involve a large degree of blended learning, but that we hoped to provide some face-to-face teaching.”
The spokesperson continued: “We very much regret that the pandemic has impacted on students in our residences and we recently announced a package of support to help. This includes a month rent free and £50 for every single one of the 2,800 students in our residences. We have provided hot food and emergency food bags along with additional towels and bedding for those who need. We appreciate that this is a very difficult time for our students, but we are doing all that we can to be supportive.”