Students need support more than ever during the Covid-19 crisis, and rapidly finding new ways to reach and engage with them has been challenging and eye-opening, says Dave Hopley, director of student services at Stoke on Trent College

The college halls are almost empty, but it’s been a busy day in student support services. This morning we sent out our weekly e-vouchers to all our students in receipt of the vulnerable bursary fund payments, or free school meals, so they could access money for food. 

Our trained counsellors provided emotional support to students and their families via video call, instant messaging and telephone. Two of our peer mentors – trained students who support other students – hosted their twice-weekly Zoom wellbeing session while another prepared for their weekly online craft workshop. Our wellbeing warriors wrote their blog, offering tips on self-care, body positivity, managing anxiety and mindfulness.

Our admissions team responded to calls and emails from young people worried about exam results, reassuring them that they’ll still have a place at the college in September; and we hosted the first of ten virtual open event sessions running throughout the week. 

Our careers team supported worried members of the public as well as students, providing virtual careers advice on training, CV writing and job hunting to anyone who needs it. 

While our doors may be closed to all but our vulnerable students, the college is still very much open. However, Covid-19 forced us to become a virtual college overnight and making sure that our 10,000 students and 400 staff feel safe, supported and engaged in our community has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. 

It’s been a steep learning curve as we adapt to working in this virtual world. We’ve had to upskill in new areas of digital technology in a short space of time. Some staff didn’t even have wi-fi in their homes until this year, yet now they’re using digital technology every day. 

This has been one of the positive impacts of Covid-19. We’ve pulled together to introduce things almost overnight which would have taken months or even years to implement. People haven’t been afraid to come up with new ideas and try them out, even if they may not work. We set up an online debating club which was a success, and we’ve now started a Ludo club. We’re running a weekly group throughout May for Ramadan and we’re launching “Mr Slotivator” sessions – fun workouts to keep students active. 

It can be overwhelming for staff as well as students as they’re adapting to new ways of working while juggling their own family responsibilities, so we’ve taken a proactive approach to their wellbeing. We’ve introduced a “my acts of self-care” initiative and virtual time-to-talk sessions. We all want to feel connected, even when we’re apart. 

Engaging with students was challenging at first. They may be more digitally capable but they are not used to working in this way. We started small and built things up, using various communications channels to promote services. Word got out, students enjoyed something and told their friends, interest grew, and feedback so far has been really positive.  

We’d all like to go back to normal soon but there are definitely positives we’ll take from this experience and our virtual college won’t disappear when the doors reopen. Some things have worked so well online and will continue to complement what we do face to face in the long term. For example, our wellbeing services have become much more accessible and the team has supported more than 200 students and their families online. We’ve had more nominations than ever for our student union elections because students have found it easier to submit their manifesto online.  

I’m proud of the student services teams, who are working really hard at home to complement what our academic staff are doing, making sure that not only do our students achieve, but that they’re safe and supported in this unprecedented time.