Anxiety turns into despair as pandemic takes the path of France’s “ghost students”

With French universities in limbo among the latest resurgence of Covid-19 infections, alarm bells are ringing over the psychological and academic consequences of months of lockdowns, curfews and online tuition for students housed in cramped housing many can afford.

Given the situation of university students during one of his many TV addresses, French President Emmanuel Macron said as early as October that it was “difficult to be 20 in 2020”.

Macron had just announced a 21:00 curfew in key cities to stop a recurrence of Covid-19 infections. He stressed the “terrible sacrifice” for young people who were bothered by disrupted studies and insecure job prospects and deprived of chills.

Things would get more difficult, the first curfew soon gave way to a second nationwide shutdown, then another curfew at 8pm and from Saturday at 6pm.

With the government now climbing to contain a new, more contagious strain of the virus, plans to resume the country’s university are in practice for all but a small number of students.

And for students learning at a distance in cramped living or at home with their parents at home for alternatives, 2021 already looks depressingly familiar.

“Rooms not larger than prison cells”

Far from a neglected aspect of the pandemic, the plight experienced by many French students made shocking headlines this week after a student jumped from the fourth floor of his university residence in the eastern city of Lyon. He is still in critical condition.

Days later, a fellow student at a nearby university was detained after threatening to jump out of her window.

Although it is too early to determine the cause of the suicide attempt, students, teachers and health workers have long warned of the emotional and academic effects of long-distance learning.

By writing on Facebook shortly after the first suicide attempt, Romain Narbonnet, a classmate of the student at the hospital, emphasized the “social isolation” that students experienced. He also questioned the decision to keep schools open while universities were closed.

“We are locked up around the clock in rooms that are no bigger than prison cells […]. How much can a student endure? Asked Narbonnet. “It is important to keep schools open, but somehow universities and students are of secondary importance. The truth is that we have left the road. ”

In the midst of increasing pressure, the French government has agreed to release only a few of the most vulnerable students back to campus – a measure that universities are struggling to put in place with already strained staff.

On Monday, the Minister for Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal, visited a university in Cergy-Pontoise, northwest of Paris, where a first batch of 100 students – out of the university’s 25,000 – were returned. She was immediately challenged by teachers who were worried about those who remained.

“If I choose 10 of my 400 students, how do I explain to the other 390 why they can not come back?” asked a professor.

“My students were tears behind their screens during oral tests, I have never encountered anything like this,” added another. “It’s unbearable that I can do nothing for them.”

Everyone was appalled by Vidal’s response.

“Mixing is the problem,” the minister claimed. “The problem is not giving lessons in lecture halls, but the student going on a coffee break, the sweet one left on a table or a sandwich with friends in the cafeteria.”

The sweet one who broke the camel’s back

Like a pinch of salt rubbed into an open wound, the “sweet left on a table” tag is widely spread on social media as students’ silent anxiety boils over into open rage. Many saw it as a sign of the contempt with which they have been treated throughout the pandemic – first designated as a virus spreader and then limited to the loneliness of their rooms, even though schools are kept open to ensure parents can return to work.

“It was not so long ago that we were blamed for the spread of the pandemic. Now we are treated like children who can not resist picking up a sweet on a table, “read an open letter written by several students and posted on Twitter with the hashtag #GhostStudents.

“After several months of the pandemic, it seems to be the motivation to keep universities closed resting on a collective inability to eat a sandwich properly,” the letter added.

Using the same hashtag, students in the southern city of Montpellier also created an Instagram account for people to express their experiences and frustrations.

“Every one of your words infantilizes me, every one of your hints makes me feel irresponsible,” a student wrote in a statement to Macron and his government. “Where people see a party guest, I only see a desperate, overwhelmed student who does not know how to protect his mental health.”

Foreign students are particularly vulnerable

In a study conducted in the wake of France’s first nationwide lockdown, the state-appointed National Observatory of Student Life (OVE) noted a 50 percent increase in the number of students presenting “signs of mental distress.”

“It is very rare to record such a large increase, and one can only assume that the situation has deteriorated significantly since then,” said observatory director Feres Belghith in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Belghith said women, foreign students and those experiencing financial hardship were disproportionately affected.

“The pandemic has proven to be particularly challenging for foreign students who are deprived of their financial and psychological support,” he explained, noting that the university – even in good times – was both an exciting and challenging experience for young adults.

Students queue to receive food aid package during a distribution by the French charity Secours Populaire in Strasbourg, eastern France, December 12, 2020. © Frédérick Florin, AFP

Although already alarming, the results of the OVE study reflected a concern and concern in a student population who “had at least experienced university socialization and campus life before the lockdown,” Beghith warned, warning of a potential for major harm to first-year students who signed up last fall .

He added: “It is likely that the psychological effect of the pandemic will be greater for those newcomers who have had virtually no real contact with their fellow students”, except on Zoom or other online platforms.

“Violations of gender equality”

In higher education, as in other areas, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, some of them specific to the French model. While students are excluded from university campuses, their peers who take so-called “prépas” (or preparatory) lessons – the traditional way of enrolling in one of France’s elite écoles – have no such restrictions.

“This violation of gender equality does not seem to bother [higher education] minister or prime minister “, the French daily Le Monde wrote in a scathing editorial on Saturday, noting that Prime Minister Jean Castex had” not a word for higher education “in his extensive press conference on pandemic action last week.

The long-term closure of universities has made many students wonder if they will be able to complete their studies – and if their degree will be devalued.

According to a survey of more than 6,000 undergraduate students, conducted by professors at the University of Aix-Marseille, more than two-thirds of respondents said that online courses had a negative effect on their ability to concentrate, learn and work. The authors of the study, which published its findings last month on The Conversation, said that just under half of the students surveyed felt that their degree would be worth less as a result of the pandemic.

To increase the prevalence of anxiety disorders, the half-exam was interrupted in early January at several universities across the country due to the crash of online platforms. Other technical incidents, including lack of tablets and congestion in Wi-Fi networks, were reported at a handful of universities that chose to hold exams in place.

Le Monde also reported cases of students taking exams despite being infected with Covid-19 and fearing that they would not be offered later sessions.

Pressure on the government

In a speech on Tuesday, left-wing lawmaker Karine Lebon called on the government to step up measures to help students in psychological and financial distress.

“Students have been forgotten in the pandemic, even though they are struggling with extraordinary isolation,” Lebon told the lower house, urging Vidal to expand subsidized meals and other financial aid measures.

The next day, Green Party Senator Monique de Marco warned the upper house of the “dramatic consequences” of students’ long-term isolation and lack of social life. She advocated a series of urgent measures, including closing down rent payments and strengthening psychological support.

Prime Minister Castex tried to address their concerns at a news conference on Thursday, stressing that the difficulties the students felt were a “major upheaval by the government”.

Speaking after him, Vidal promised to double the number of psychologists available at French universities. She said that first-year students would start returning to the university in “small groups” from January 25.

The Prime Minister was to host university and student representatives for talks on Friday. The Student Union has already called for a nationwide day of protests on January 20 to demand that the university’s campus be reopened.