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Societies and Covid: What You Need To Know

Nouse’s Features Team run through the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on social activities and offer advice for societies seeking to keep in touch with their members online.

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Image Credit: Luke Snell

It’s obvious that Welcome Week, and in fact this whole term, will be completely different from previous years. The COVID restrictions designed to keep us safe inevitably create some significant obstacles for societies to overcome, though some societies will be more severely impacted than others.

Alex Thompson, our MUSE Editor and President of BandSoc, informs me that COVID has resulted in the society having to drop more and more events as restrictions tighten. “Currently the safest events to host will be acoustic nights or gigs with solo performers to minimise both the amount of equipment shared, but also the volume level which is another massive issue with the transmission of the virus.” Despite these issues, Alex hopes that BandSoc will be able to deliver some events in collaboration with colleges as well as URY.

The nature of performance-based societies is that they rely on in-person performance and socialisation, which Alex points out are “almost impossible to retain this term.” He emphasises that they’re trying their best to help freshers find new bandmates through social media, even if their usual events are limited.

Elsewhere, other societies are hoping the COVID restrictions will provide them with greater opportunities to reach new members. SewSoc President Caitlyn Palmer shared with me that in place of their usual weekly meetings, members will be sent a weekly project via email, with step-by-step instructions, helping members to pick up new skills without leaving their bedrooms.

A stitch-along will be included alongside this, with each week including a new section of a unique embroidery pattern, designed by the committee. “Some of the stitches are new to me too, so I’m excited to be learning some new skills too this year!” Caitlyn says. “We didn't want to remove the social aspect of the society altogether, so we have planned a weekly Zoom call where sewers can say hi to the committee and ask any questions about the weekly project.”

What’s even more exciting is that SewSoc has designed an eight-week online course called ‘Anyone Can Sew’, introducing sewing to absolute beginners via video tutorials which will teach participants various stitches, and a variety of applications for them.

Similarly, many academic societies have been able to adapt all of their events to be online. Charlotte Lear, Vice President of LitSoc, tells me that running book clubs online means that they’ll be able to host more people without worrying about room capacity. However, book sales and live poetry events have proved more difficult to adapt.

But Charlotte emphasises that the move to online interaction has helped to increase their following, as they’ve had to focus more on their online social media presence. “Our aim for this year is to connect with as many literature-lovers as they possibly can, and the unlimited nature of social media and online events will allow us to be more inclusive than ever before,” Charlotte concludes. LitSoc’s Freshers’ mixer will be held on Thursday of Week 2 and will feature an appearance from the Head of English, Helen Smith, along with a literary-themed quiz.

Staying sociable and looking out for each others’ mental wellbeing is more crucial, and perhaps more difficult, than ever. One group that faces the challenges of isolation more than most are the elderly, and this is where Tea and Coffee Society come in. They’re about more than stopping in for a brew; ordinarily, it’s a chance for members to interact with local elderly people who often don’t have family or friends to come and visit them. With the elderly being high-risk for COVID, this year has obviously been challenging. Their Project Co-Ordinator, Chloe Reid, tell me that, “throughout the whole of lockdown and the summer holiday we have been providing a weekly phone call service to all the elderly we normally see on a weekly basis. We rang up right at the beginning to ensure they were all okay for food as well.”

The society hopes to continue in-person doorstep visits with full PPE this term, if government guidance allows, though they note that this will naturally not be as interactive as their usual in-person sessions, where the elderly can socialise with each other, as well as all of the student attendees. “We will be proposing new ideas such as letters by post and emailing services for those elderly members that are confident in using this, and would love for freshers to join us to create more contacts for our elderly members, and to help bring in new ideas.”

As these societies are demonstrating, the limitations on social gatherings don’t have to spell the end of social activity this term. So far, a willingness to adapt and accept changed circumstances has been a crucial mindset for surviving during the pandemic. This term could provide an opportunity to foster a variety of new skills that will prove invaluable for the times ahead, both personally and professionally.

The pandemic offers students a great chance to upskill and learn the tricks of the trade when it comes to working effectively online. Learning the most productive and engaging ways to work with people online – especially for incoming graduates, for whom remote working is likely to be the norm for some time – is a great way to get ahead and dispel at least some of the gloom regarding your future career prospects.

In terms of project management, there are plenty of ways to virtually organise your society and learn new skills. The app Slack is a kind of “work SMS” designed to replicate the office atmosphere, complete with virtual tea rooms and the option to leave an “out of office” icon next to your profile. For different topics, you can create any number of channels you need, and the app also serves up a wide variety of GIFs and emojis you can use to react to messages, making it more down-to-earth and appealing than other dashboard apps.

Asana is another useful app which allows you to organise projects efficiently. The beauty of Asana is that you can put everything in one place – all the way from big projects and team goals, to minor tasks that are trivial but essential to your running. You can set deadlines, assign tasks, and provide regular updates on how your project is going.

Now is the perfect time to be increasing your society’s visibility online, in the likelihood that in-person events will be extremely limited for a while. If you’ve ever wondered about editing, illustration, marketing, or website design, now is the perfect time to broaden your skill set. There are many options for getting creative – you could use Wordpress to create a blog for your society or even set up a TikTok. Many societies are already using online editing platforms such as Canva to create neat, Instagrammable graphics that show off the society. Canva’s free version comes with plenty of features; there is practically a style of post for every occasion, be it A5 brochure or Facebook cover photo.

However, the new opportunities available for societies and their members to embrace extend beyond the professional, with events accessibility being an issue which has seen particular coverage since the start of the pandemic. Attending events in-person, from campus lectures to society socials, simply isn’t possible for everyone.

While York provides activity bursaries to students who are in need of them, the mileage of these is necessarily limited. Social gatherings at university often involve a monetary aspect – from the commonplace bar crawl to hefty tickets for formals. A greater provision and quality of online events could improve the social experience for students with chronic illnesses, for whom lockdown and distancing may be their long-term reality.

At the moment, the university experience is often framed in terms of what we as students cannot do. This message is constant, whether from the media, our families, or our friends – and, of course, ourselves. Some societies will adapt to the new climate. Some – inevitably – will have to be put on pause. But the appetite for what student groups can offer is unlikely to go away, leaving them in good stead for that faraway day when the world emerges from the pandemic.

Evidently, the conditions under which societies currently have to run are by no means ideal. In the future, a blended approach to online and in-person activities may prove a better option and an unexpected silver lining to the storm cloud that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

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