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Former pupil reflects on life lessons during COVID-19
November 15, 2021

Former Rydal Penrhos pupil and recent York University graduate Alex Bytheway reflected on life lessons during COVID-19 for a special feature.

The last two years have been unprecedented both at Rydal Penrhos and across the globe. The effect of COVID-19 on learning and the way we approach things in day-to-day life has altered significantly and it is still prevalent today, with the school reacting exceptionally well to ever-changing circumstances to ensure progress remained unaltered and examination results were of the highest standard.

It wasn’t just our current pupils that were forced into a substantial period of adjustment. Rydal Penrhos alumni also had to overcome plenty of obstacles – whether in higher education or the working world.

Alex Bytheway recently made a fantastic contribution to the Rydal Penrhos Society newsletter, where he detailed his experience throughout the pandemic and the lessons he’s taken on board over such a challenging and uncertain time.

“I never imagined graduating on the M56.”

In the autumn of 2019, I returned to York after a year’s absence, to complete the final stages of my degree. The absence had left me somewhat stranded in terms of friendships, however, this did allow me to focus on my dissertation, for which I was kindly given a lakeside office at the York Cross-Disciplinary Centre for Systems Analysis.

The autumn term ran smoothly as I attended lectures and tutorials alongside collecting data for my dissertation. Ironically, several lectures during this term focussed on viral proteins and outbreaks of disease. After spending the Christmas break of 2019 in North Wales, I returned to York and made progress in forming a close friendship with a philosophy student. Everything was going well and my mental health – the reason why I had taken a year’s absence – was in a good place.

Two cases of a mystery coronavirus emerged at a hotel in York and the media coverage began. My initial thoughts were that the virus wouldn’t be particularly transmissible and would soon become old news. Nothing felt out of the ordinary and as my friend helped me pack for the Easter break, we could not have predicted what was to come.

By mid-March 2020 cases of COVID-19 were rising rapidly in the UK.

It became clear that the virus would not fizzle out, and government action was necessary. Universities, including the University of York, closed their doors with staff and students ordered to work from home. I, like most other students, would not be returning for the summer term.

The first lockdown had begun.

Mentally, I was still in good health and my degree continued using a mixture of online workshops and pre-recorded lectures. In-person exams were no longer an option for universities or schools, but the alternative was still unclear.

We had online tutorials with lecturers sitting in their living rooms and any planned laboratory work was cancelled. We were being constantly told, via email, to keep learning the course content with no idea if it would be assessed, how it would be assessed or when it would be assessed.

I sat my final exams from a desk in our home office.

Three 24-hour papers which had to be submitted online along with my dissertation.

It was hard to sleep during this time as my mind constantly reflected on my answers. My parents and philosophy friend were very supportive and I remain grateful for having them in my life. There was no after-party, no time to say goodbye to fellow chemistry students and of course, no graduation gowns.

In many ways, I feel that my degree has not yet ended.

In August I went to Penrith for a week’s ‘staycation’ with my family in a lakeside lodge. On the return journey, I watched the virtual graduation ceremony from the back of our car on the M56 whilst stuck in traffic. Once home, I video called some university friends for a short while and I haven’t seen many of them since.

In September 2020 I took a post as a science technician for a school in Ruthin. With institutions re-opening, there was an expected return to ‘normal’ and this required some very careful planning.

There was no sharing of science equipment, everything was quarantined between uses and eye protection sanitised in buckets of Milton. Every activity required careful consideration and on top of this, laboratory renovations were underway.

All staff were carrying out bi-weekly lateral flow tests, teachers and students were being sent home every day for PCR tests and supply teachers were in demand. It was getting harder to facilitate practical science and timetabling was stressful.

Despite lockdown having little effect on my mental health the first time around, the second in November 2020 hit harder for a myriad of reasons. It had been a while since seeing my friends at this point and there was no degree to ‘distract’ me.

I’m still a science technician and oversee ten teaching laboratories, three of which have now been fully renovated, with the rest due for completion in 2022. The education sector, particularly at the university level, is changing and remote working will prevail for now, if not forever.

With this in-mind schools are investing more in online resources and facilities such as tablets, microphones and web cameras.

The pandemic has taught me the importance of people in our lives. The friends and family who support us and the community services which we rely on.

We should be thankful for the work which everybody does both upfront and behind the scenes to make our society a better place. It has also taught me that we must all take responsibility for our physical and mental wellbeing, both during education and the wider world.

For those more vulnerable in society, we must also step up to help.

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Anyone wishing to enquire about Rydal Penrhos School can do so by calling 01492 530155, email admissions@rydalpenrhos.com or register your interest online here: https://rydalpenrhos.com/admissions/apply-now.

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