Isolated, abandoned, depressed. Those are the words used to describe how students feel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them must study online with very little social interaction. Unprecedented solitude leads to psychological suffering, in addition to growing impoverishment.

According to UNESCO, "half of the world's pupils and students continue to be affected by the total or partial closure of schools and universities," which means more than 800 million young people around the world.

"Prolonged and repeated closures of educational institutions are taking a growing psychosocial toll on students, increasing learning losses and the risk of dropping out and disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable," said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay on International Education Day. "Complete school closures should, therefore, be a last resort and safe reopening should be a priority," added Ms. Azoulay.

In Belgium, 80% of French-speaking students feel somewhat or completely affected psychologically, with a consequent risk of a 60% drop out rate from schools. In France, nearly 11.4% of students say they thought of curtailing their studies at least once during the first lockdown.

Many organisations, universities, and students themselves are joining forces to overcome the effects of the health crisis, and a growing number of initiatives are underway.

United against hunger

Deprived of work that enables them to finance their daily lives, some students have difficulty getting enough to eat, and as Secours Populaire in France has observed, an increasing number are resorting to food distribution centres.

During the first lockdown, associations mobilized under the Federation of General Student Associations (FAGE). The 360 volunteers of its "AGORAé" network, from 24 solidarity grocery stores in France, distributed 29,000 meals to more than 12,000 students. Solidarity refrigerators also store food collected by associations but on a smaller scale.

Young people prefer this kind of assistance, often student-to-student, rather than conventional aid centres. At the same time, university restaurants have adapted to distribute meal boxes or allow the sale of takeaway meals for one euro to students who are in need.

Breaking isolation

In addition to financial worries, students are hit hard by being isolated at an age when social interaction is fundamental. Often housed in cramped spaces or student bedrooms, these young people spend their days in front of a computer with very little social interaction.

During the first lockdown, the Picto-charentais Students' Federation Association launched a conversation and instant messaging service on the Discord application. Students can discuss educational topics, hobbies, and passions, or simply talk about their feelings to other students. This initiative, shared by various associations, has spread to other cities such as Lille, Rennes and Strasbourg. In Belgium, universities have been creative in organizing events that encourage social interaction. In Antwerp, students get to know one another through short online meetings or "speed-meeting". In Ghent students met online during a quiz on the American elections and a photography competition.

In this way, the virtual space becomes a place for sharing and collective relaxation. Associations, some of which are linked to FAGE, use the social potential of applications such as Discord to set up sessions of games, competitions, or simply to have conversations about classes, films, or music.

Governments react

Students have made repeated appeals to authorities in their countries for help. These alerts by the "last in containment," as they call themselves, paved the way for further government and academic action. Some 20,000 students are to be recruited in France in the coming months as tutors to their classmates in the lower years to facilitate communication and mutual aid within the university system. Emergency financial aid schemes are being developed by the CROUS to the amount of 500 euros for young graduates looking for work.

The French Government has also announced "psychological support vouchers" for students as well as recruiting 80 new psychologists attached to universities, doubling their current number.

In an open letter published in the Belgian press, parents of confined young people challenged policy makers to "Open up the auditoriums. This is a priority. Get organized so they can go back to their classes. They know the health rules and they want to be able to apply them. They also look forward to seeing more than two of each other, to resuming sports and, even crazier, to remaking the world. Which really needs it."

UNESCO is providing advice and expertise to the Ministries of Education in several countries to facilitate the sharing of experience and multilateral cooperation in favour of students, for example with the promotion of distance learning tools.

The promotion of quality education for the world remains one of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations for the year 2030.

"Education is the key to personal development and to the future of our societies," according to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who recommends giving top priority to the return of students to schools and other educational centres "when the transmission of COVID-19 at the local level is stopped." France has authorized a partial return of first-year students to campuses, but this measure is deemed insufficient and could be reconsidered depending on the evolution of the pandemic.