Living with Covid: How staff and students are coping with a return to normal

By Trishita Bose and Jill Namatsi

Featured image credit:
People head to their workplaces near Piccadilly, Manchester. /Trishita Bose and Jill Namatsi

Bulletin reel: Listen to this story in brief

On February 21, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was time to end legal restrictions and “learn to live with this virus”. On top of a general uproar about mask wearing, employers grappled with the issue of ‘going back to the workplace’ while employees dreaded that email asking them to return to long 9-5 days. Similarly, school students struggled with making the shift back to physical learning – “from disruption to recovery” – according to UNESCO.

Working from home, a default phase for corporate workers during the pandemic, quickly became a more permanent arrangement. Initially, the idea of abandoned office buildings and empty cubicles seemed odd, even unimaginable, but two and a half years later, the pandemic has shown that being in the office does not necessarily equal greater productivity, and most office-goers continue to thrive without meeting in person. Studying from home, on the other hand, forced students to spend more time indoors and on their gadgets, being monitored more by their parents than their teachers. Thus far, some schools have fully restored physical learning, while others are teaching both in person and virtually.

For both office goers and students in the UK, there have been significant changes in physical health, mental wellbeing, socialisation norms and the costs of living.

According to Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) data, nearly half of all workers in the UK (49%) worked from home during the first lockdown in 2020. Data collected between 19 and 30 January, 2022 showed that over a third of working adults (36%) reported having worked from home at least once in January because of the pandemic.

There has been, as the data shows, a sudden shift in the trend due to relaxed restrictions and a rising vaccination rate. The days of Zoom meetings and Slack chats are becoming less frequent as many companies are beginning to call back their employees for return to office (RTO). The employees, however, are not all so eager for a return to rushed mornings, long and expensive commutes, small talk by the watercooler, forced smiles and socialising.

The ‘Covid-19 and Working from Home Survey’ of March 2021, co-authored by Professors Phil Taylor and Dora Scholarios from Strathclyde Business School and Professor Debra Howcroft from the University of Manchester, shows that 78% of respondents said they preferred to work in the office for at most two days. Almost a third – 31% – said they preferred never returning to the office.

In the case of schools, those in the UK reopened again on March 8, 2021 after the second lockdown due to rising Covid-19 infections. Regarding the preferred mode of learning, a report by the UK’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), which refers to a March 2021 poll from Teacher Tapp, suggests that both teachers and students are keen on returning to the norm. The report says that the emphasis is on socialisation, wellbeing, re-establishing rules of behaviour, returning to the curriculum as quickly as possible and reintroducing extra-curricular activities.

“Overall, students seemed to be motivated and engaged with learning on the return to school in March, with teachers reporting that students had returned to school displaying behaviour which is similar or even better than it would be in normal times,” the report says.

But a September 2021 survey by Ipsos MORI showed that less than a third of the population (26%) believe learners will have caught up with what they missed out on by the end of the current school year.

Source: Statista

Physical Health

When it comes to physical health, about 37% or workers say it has worsened while 28% say it has improved since WFH began. In terms of musculoskeletal complaints, 42% people reported more stiff shoulders, 41% stiff necks and 24% more numbness in arms, wrists or hands. In terms of visual complaints, 28% reported increases in the frequency of sore eyes and 23% impaired vision.

Some like Abigail Danica from Microsoft, London, cited lack of a proper workstation at home. Abigail says she ‘’enjoyed the flexibility’’ but also suffered from chronic shoulder and back pain.

Jane Felluca, a social media manager from Birmingham, added: ‘’Luckily, I could keep my own times during WFH, and therefore, could do my yoga at any time.’’

In the case of students, the latest report by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skill, shows that children in their early years are experiencing delays in crawling and walking, speech and language.

“It’s clear that the pandemic has created some lingering challenges. I’m particularly worried about younger children’s development, which, if left unaddressed, could potentially cause problems for primary schools down the line,” said Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman.

The Ofsted report on the pandemic’s impact on education providers was published on April 4, following 280 inspections and multiple focus group discussions. It adds that more providers are concerned that fewer children have learned to use the toilet independently, meaning “more children may not be ready for school by age 4”. They were also concerned about obesity as children spent most of their time indoors and not engaging in outdoor physical activities as had been the norm.

Irene Moore, a surveyor whose two boys attend St John’s Primary School in High Barnet, London, said that during the lockdown, she had to introduce gadgets on weekdays to keep them preoccupied as working full time from home made it difficult to supervise them.

“With the reopening of schools, they are readjusting slowly,” said Irene. “They had become accustomed to being at home a lot and had gotten a bit lazy, but now they have gotten back into routine and are definitely enjoying the activities they engaged in before.”

Parents and students of St John’s Primary School in High Barnet, London, leave school in the evening. /Irene Moore

Mental Health

Of the workers surveyed, 40% believe their mental health has worsened compared to 31% who said it has improved. On the other hand, 45% report increased mental fatigue and 40% report increased stress since WFH.

However, the hours of working from home were found to be similar. Ninety per cent said they worked the same number of hours, and every 7 in 10 people report some flexibility in deciding breaks.

Robynn, an executive assistant from Bath, said: “My mental health suffered in trying to keep up with increasing demands and constant monitoring in the initial months’’, but a new pattern formed and saw everybody could work regular hours and with no stress.

With students, Ofsted says the pandemic’s impact on mental health and wellbeing remains a concern, with mental health challenges evidenced by “lower levels of resilience and confidence, and increased levels of anxiety”. The report adds that some are grappling with lack of confidence in group activities, which has been linked to the minimal social interaction they underwent during the pandemic.

To help the learners, Ofsted says many schools are giving in-house support as external help from agencies comes with long waiting times. As a result, it adds, however, schools are facing a further strain as they have to train their own staff to provide this help.

Socialising

The survey found that the main reasons some employees want to return to the workplace were: missing social interaction in the workplace (83%), missing work interaction (75%) and wanting work and home life to be separate (45%).

When it comes to students, Ofsted says the pandemic has affected communication and language development in young children, which it also links to their reduced social interaction during the lockdown.

“Children’s social and friendship-building skills have been affected. Some providers reported that toddlers and preschoolers needed more support with sharing and turn-taking,” said the report. “To address this, staff were providing as many opportunities as possible for children to mix with others and build confidence in social situations.”

Irene says that to increase these opportunities for her children, she is organising for them to meet their friends under different scenarios, having noticed that even after mingling in school, they still ask for extended interaction via screen time as this is what they got accustomed to during the lockdown.

Godiya Olinze, a mother of two in Manchester, said her children initially struggled with online learning due to being ‘more relaxed’ as though they were ‘on holiday’. As a result they felt they shouldn’t be ‘sitting in front of a computer for long’. With the reopening of schools, she said would prefer a hybrid system of learning to allow for mingling with other students while also encouraging independent learning.

Students of New Islington Free School during break time. /Trishita Bose and Jill Namatsi

Cost of Living

When it comes to the pandemic’s impact on the cost of living, the most recent OPN data (19 – 30 January 2022) shows that nearly half (46%) of homeworkers report having spent less as a result of working from home because of the pandemic.

In contrast, just 18% said their spending had risen, while 28% said it had remained the same and 8% were unsure. Rishav Bose, a product manager at a multinational company in London, said: ‘’The amount I save on commuting and wasteful purchases like lunch and snacks is huge compared to living costs at home, which to me, aren’t even noticeable.’’

Source: Office for National Statistics – Opinions and Lifestyle Survey

Most homeworkers – about 86% – say they saw spending spikes in utility bills. Some 50% of people working from home report spending less on fuel and parking for commuting while 40% report spending less on commuting using public transport.

The same report states that 22% of homeworkers with dependent children report increased spending after the pandemic, compared with 16% of those without dependent children. It adds that increased spending for those with dependent children was on food (39%), utilities (89%), and internet access (27%). For this group of homeworkers, however, the majority (48%) report less spending on fuel and parking for commuting (55%) and public transport for commuting (42%).

Both Irene and Godiya say their families generally spent more during the lockdown and that expenses such as electricity, gas and food have declined minimally with the children’s return to school. They add that only the transport cost has increased as they now travel more for work, school and physical activities for both parents and children.

A Comparative Study on India

To present a comparative study from India, SCIKEY Tech Talent Outlook Study 2022 revealed that 82% of employees prefer working from home. The study also found that 64% employees felt less stressed and were more productive when working from home.

Jerin Daniel, a senior marketing executive at Scholastic, also leans towards working from home. “My mental health has gotten much better as it allows divesting the excess time into personal work, fitness or family care,” he said.

According to a survey by Statista in August 2020, the leading reasons for employees preferring to work from home were spending less time (60%) and money (58%) on daily commute, opportunity to pursue personal interests (42%), flexible schedules (39%) and better work-life balance (35%).

Source: Statista

The leading disadvantages of working from home, per the survey, included a lack of a social life (43%) and team bonding (42%), less enthusiasm for work (41%) and an increase in living costs (23%).

Priyanka Tyagi, a business developer at MTG Books, said she ‘’misses socialising at work’’ but would still prefer a hybrid setup where she can also ‘’relax a bit and save some money on commute.’’

Source: Statista

In terms of learning, India is one of the countries in the world where institutions were closed for the longest period as it was hard-hit by several waves of the virus. According to the Responses Educational Disruption Survey (Reds) by UNESCO, which was published in 2022, these school closures “enlarged the digital inequity within the country, since many institutions were not prepared and students (especially in rural areas) did not have the means to access digital materials”.

UNESCO says education providers had to make use of online platforms, radio, TV and paper-based materials, with those in elite schools using mobile phones. The consequences were significant. It adds, “Challenges included low attendance, class disruptions due to poor internet quality and students getting distracted easily” and “in many states, orders were issued to cancel the end of year examinations and promote all students up to grade 8”.

Avishek Roy, the head of marketing at Scholastic, described his daughter’s Grade 4 and 5 years as a “whitewash” because of the disruptions in learning, and said “it was major chaos” for the first few months after Covid hit as they tried to acquire hardware and steady internet connectivity for attending classes from home.

“She was quite the extrovert but for the last two years, she has hardly had any interaction with people. This really impacted her social interaction and communication skills, as well as her emotional wellbeing,” he said, adding that parents and teachers have had to work together to ensure a ‘mind shift’ for the children. In some cases, he added, they have had to sign them up for counselling while also encouraging them to speak out about their feelings, play with others and go out more.

Other top concerns with the resumption of classroom learning in India were ranked in a survey by UNICEF.

Source: Statista

The Situation in Kenya

There are no official reports on the work-from-home or return-to-work situation in Kenya. However, employees interviewed for this article tell a similar story to the UK and India, that workplaces are starting to return to office in a more relaxed, hybrid way.

Felix Ominde, an insurance and risk management professional from Nairobi, is considered an ‘essential service provider’ and was required to work from the office throughout the pandemic. It has been especially difficult for him as most of his colleagues worked from home so he was mostly alone at the office.

His workplace, Pabari Group, has partially adopted a hybrid system, with some staff starting to return to the office. He said: “I prefer working from home as I’m not sure my young kids would make the home a conducive environment for work.”

Similarly, there is no official report on the state of learning in Kenya since schools reopened. However, the country scaled down its anti-virus measures for the general public on March 11, ending the mandatory wearing of face masks.

In a televised address, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe also announced that full capacity indoor meetings could take place for vaccinated participants only. Mutahi also authorised the full resumption of sports activities, meaning students will have new opportunities to engage in physical activities, which will aid their mental and social wellbeing as well.

Susan Kimachia, mother of two in Kenya, said the journey has been ‘challenging’. During the lockdown, she had Wi-Fi and materials from Mikisa Group of Schools, which encourages independent learning. She said that some of the major challenges were getting the children to concentrate, ensuring their days were properly structured and supervising them.

“School work is hard. If you’re moderating from home, sometimes you will have a difficult time explaining concepts. I like the fact that with physical learning, they can do that with their teachers,” she said.

Currently, her children, in grade 3 and 5, are learning both online and physically. They prefer a hybrid as this gives them the freedom to either go to school and meet their friends for both work and play, or have more relaxed days at home.

For Felix Olwanda, the pandemic was a major blow as most of the students at St Elias Iyabo Secondary School in rural western Kenya depend entirely on physical learning. Besides the trauma of possibly contracting the virus at school, he said they faced social and mental distress. Felix added that there were reported cases of hysteria and imagined sickness partly due to prohibition of physical activities, restricted movement and events such as sports days, which help students to destress.

“In a nutshell, learning was impossible and the government’s attempt to implement it online was equally challenging. Students in hyperlocal schools like this one had limited or no access to the internet and e-learning materials. As a result, they are unable to cover the programmed year’s work in the compressed time in the revised academic calendar.”

Students of St Elias Iyabo Secondary School in Mumias West Sub-county, in Kakamega, Kenya, during a morning assembly. /Felix Olwanda

Felix added that some students lost friends or family, or both, to the pandemic, which added to their trauma and affected their concentration.

“In addition, some teenage girls ended up with unplanned pregnancies due to spending time in less structured environments while some boys had to find jobs to help their families put food on the table. Many did not return to school,” he said.

To help those who reported back recover, the school has increased guidance and counselling as well as remedial programmes. Challenges include insufficient infrastructure and learning materials but Felix says they will improvise and make the best use of the resources they have.

In a post-pandemic world, the challenges for both workers and students are many. A realisation is that working and studying from home is not a fad, but as the data suggests, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all system that appeals to everybody.

With big tech companies like Google and Apple embracing the hybrid model, smaller companies across industries are following suit. Similarly with schools, with some proving that children can be trusted with independent learning from time to time, more are testing virtual learning as they speak to parents and students about their preferences.

‘Hybrid’ seems to be the work and study mode of the future, with choice as the keyword, as individuals love the freedom to decide what suits them, as long as their productivity does not decline.

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