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Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and self-isolation on students and staff in higher education: A qualitative study


Sophie Carlisle


Lydia Briggs

Lauren Fothergill

Mehmet Yildirim

Jessica Corner

Professor of Molecular Virology

Professor of Stem Cell Biology

Professor in Applied Psychology

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Professor of Behavioural Medicine


This qualitative study explored the impact of COVID-19 self-isolation and social restriction measures on university students, through the perspectives of both students and the staff supporting them. The study comprised 11 focus groups (students) and 26 individual interviews (staff) at a higher education institution in England during a period of national lockdown (January–March 2021). Participants were university students (n = 52) with self-isolation experiences and university staff (n = 26) with student-facing support roles. Focus group and interview data were combined and analysed using an inductive thematic approach. Four themes emerged: ‘Adaptation during the pandemic’, ‘Practical, environmental, and emotional challenges of self-isolating’, ‘Social factors and their impact on COVID-19 testing and self-isolation adherence’, and ‘Supporting self-isolation’. Students and staff struggled with the imposed restrictions and shift to online education. Students found it difficult to adapt to new expectations for university life and reported missing out on professional and social experiences. Students and staff noted concerns about the impact of online teaching on educational outcomes. Students endorsed varied emotional responses to self-isolation; some felt unaffected whilst others experienced lowered mood and loneliness. Students were motivated by pro-social attitudes; campaigns targeting these factors may encourage continued engagement in protective behaviours. Staff struggled to manage their increased workloads delivering support for self-isolating students. Universities must consider the support needs of students during self-isolation and prepare for the long-term impacts of the pandemic on student wellbeing and educational attainment. Greater support should be provided for staff during transitional periods, with ongoing monitoring of workforce stress levels warranted.


Knight, H., Carlisle, S., O’connor, M., Briggs, L., Fothergill, L., Al-Oraibi, A., …Blake, H. (2021). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and self-isolation on students and staff in higher education: A qualitative study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(20), Article 10675.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 5, 2021
Online Publication Date Oct 12, 2021
Publication Date Oct 1, 2021
Deposit Date Oct 12, 2021
Publicly Available Date Oct 13, 2021
Journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Electronic ISSN 1660-4601
Publisher MDPI
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 18
Issue 20
Article Number 10675
Keywords COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; coronavirus; workplace; workforce; social isolation; mental health; students; staff; focus groups; semi-structured interviews; qualitative
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