Studying nursing in an online bubble: the realities of learning in lockdown
The tips and support systems helping one first-year student cope during the COVID-19 pandemic
I knew that the first year of my children’s nursing degree would be a challenge, but I didn’t anticipate that it would involve coping with a global pandemic.
At the beginning of March, I returned to university for my second semester. Full of enthusiasm and new ideas, I was eager to see my fellow students and start the next stage of my learning.
Student life turned into an online bubble as COVID-19 cases spread
But as COVID-19 took hold, things started to change. Our second clinical placement wasn’t due to start until July, so I wasn’t overly concerned at first.
I naively thought it would all be over by then, but as the daily death toll started to climb, the unthinkable became reality.
‘I will finish the first year of my nursing degree without having stepped inside a hospital’
The university suspended all face-to-face teaching until further notice, moving lectures online. On 20 March, the whole campus closed, including the library, and we turned our student lives into an online bubble.
Not such a disaster for those with no childcare responsibilities perhaps, but a nightmare for parents when the schools closed on the same day. My five-year-old daughter had just started school, and it was devastating to see her come home that day with all her school things.
My pleading with the head teacher to let her carry on going to school was in vain; as I wasn’t on placement and my husband was working from home, we didn’t qualify for key worker status.
My freedom vanished overnight; not only was I faced with online learning for my course, but also home schooling, entertaining, extra cooking and cleaning. After lockdown was imposed, home life became extremely difficult and where I had previously enjoyed studying, I started to hate it.
The pressures of studying full-time under lockdown became too much
It took some time for the course leaders to turn our campus-based timetable into a viable online version, and some practical elements of the course had to be abandoned.
Teaching via Microsoft Teams was set up and we all had to learn how to use it. But when lectures started to be delivered online, I found it too overwhelming; I couldn’t concentrate on a two-hour lecture with regular interruptions from my daughter.
Sometimes there were several lectures a day, but I was finding it impossible to follow them. I started watching recorded lectures in the evenings, but then I stayed awake all night worrying about writing assignments.
Studying while caring for a young child was already tricky before the pandemic, but this new ‘normal’ was frankly impossible.
I couldn’t take it any longer and was close to a mental breakdown. The pressure of two people at home trying to work and study full-time while looking after a young child all day became too much. Something had to give.
After contacting the university, I was signposted to where I could access student well-being support and was offered counselling. Regular sessions with a counsellor helped me think more rationally and be more pragmatic, but it was still hard work.
Tips for studying online at home
- Keep in contact with your personal tutor, student support and student union Let them know if you are struggling, they are there to help you. Access to learning material and support must be made available to all students to suit their individual needs
- Try to keep up to date with lectures and assignments It can be hard to find the time to study, especially when you have children at home, but try not to let things get out of control. Do some studying every day, even if it’s only half an hour
- Be kind to yourself Don’t try to be perfect; you are doing the best you can. Make sure you get enough sleep, stay hydrated, maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly
- Ignore the amount of work some of your fellow students seem to be doing Everyone has their personal challenges and unique set of circumstances. You might not be able to spend many hours a day reading, researching and watching simulation videos, so just do what you can
- If you are experiencing mental health problems don’t suffer in silence Support is out there, you just need to reach out – nobody knows you need help if you don’t tell them. Talk to your family and friends, university support team or GP. Organisations such as The Samaritans can also help, and the RCN counselling service is free for RCN members. Look after your mental and physical health equally — one doesn’t exist without the other
Working bank shifts as a healthcare assistant for some clinical experience
When our summer placement was cancelled and replaced by a theory module brought forward from year two, I was even more concerned about how I would cope, juggling further online studying and childcare responsibilities.
This has now been revised – instead of doing the theory module we will have the summer off and start year two as planned in September. Although this is a huge relief, it means I will finish the first year of my nursing degree without having stepped inside a hospital. My only placement this year has been with health visitors, where I mostly experienced healthy babies and an office environment.
I felt like something was missing on my road to becoming a nurse, so when I saw that two local trusts were advertising for bank healthcare assistants, I applied and got shifts in community and mental health.
I am currently completing my online training and will be ready to start soon.
What COVID-19 has provided is lessons is resilience
Life will be even more crazy adding bank shifts into the mix, but I want to increase my confidence in carrying out practical skills, which I can’t do through the university at the moment.
Studying a nursing degree online is not my preferred option and I can’t wait to be back on campus.
But new opportunities arose through this unprecedented situation, which have hopefully equipped me with some of the resilience that is so much needed working in the nursing profession.
Lenka Huntley is a first-year children's nursing student at the University of Brighton