In recent weeks, thousands of students and staff from Northern Ireland’s Further Education (FE) colleges have combined their time, talents and skills gained through their college courses to support frontline efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 61,000 students are currently studying further and higher education courses at Belfast Metropolitan College, Northern Regional College, North West Regional College, Southern Regional College, South East Regional College and South West College.
Speaking on behalf of the heads of the six Colleges, Professor Terri Scott, Principal and Chief Executive at Northern Regional College explained: “As a network of six regional FE colleges, we are at the heart of every community in Northern Ireland and this is reflected in the outward-looking culture and strong sense of community spirit that underpins every one of our campuses.
“As College Principals, we have been greatly inspired by the tremendous demonstrations of solidarity and support from thousands of our students and staff in proactively giving their skill, talent and time to support others during these unprecedent times.
“Alongside their efforts to study and teach remotely from home, we have seen them really pull together to make what is, collectively, a very tangible and even lifesaving contribution to the frontline efforts to fight Coronavirus in Northern Ireland.”
All six colleges have been involved in the production of PPE equipment, with North West Regional College and Southern Regional College arranging the production and delivery of hundreds of PPE face shields for frontline workers in hospitals and care homes across local health trusts. Engineering staff at Northern Regional College have also used 3D printers to produce over 250 face shields, with Belfast Met supporting local medical firm Axial 3D in its production of hundreds of face shields by loaning the firm eight 3D printers.
Other students and staff have used more traditional methods to support the cry for PPE equipment, hand sewing hundreds of pairs of scrubs and face masks. South West College Community Lecturer Nicola Birnie has created craft kits for students, which they are using to make face masks and ear savers for staff in local hospitals and care homes. Belfast Met Level 3 City and Guilds Textiles student Maria O’Prey has also sewn dozens of cotton face masks for local care homes, as well as for colleagues in her part-time job at Tesco. At South East Regional College, Level 3 Foundation Diploma in Art & Design student Tetiana Nestorenko and Science lecturer Linda Lytle have also handsewn dozens of masks for staff at Ards Community Hospital.
Hospital fit outs
Students from a range of courses across the Colleges have also been involved in the fit out of COVID-19 facilities at a number of hospitals. Stanley Chapman, a Level 3 Electrical Apprentice from South East Regional College, has been working 12-hour shifts as part of the team installing the lighting system in a new part of the Ulster Hospital, working around the clock to get it ready for wards that will be required in the coming weeks.
On the frontline
Hundreds of current and former students and staff from across the six colleges’ Health and Social Care courses are working as frontline healthcare workers and domiciliary assistants in hospitals, care homes and in communities across Northern Ireland.
Northern Regional College lecturer Jacqui McAllister is volunteering as a healthcare assistant on the COVID-19 wards at Antrim Area Hospital during her weekends off, choosing to donate her pay for this work to Ulster University’s COVID-19 testing fundraising appeal. Former Southern Regional College Access and Health and Social Care student Louise Graham is now a nurse working on the COVID-19 ward in Craigavon Area Hospital, with former student Emma Hamilton also covering nursing shifts across Craigavon, Daisy Hill and the Royal Victoria Hospitals.
Thousands of students are also considered key workers at this time, serving in a range of roles in local supermarkets, community pharmacies and agri-food factories and production lines.
Messages of support and encouragement
Others are turning to music as a source of support and encouragement. South West College Media lecturer Larry Lowe is encouraging people to listen to messages of hope in his song, ‘Not Forever’ and donate what they can to Omagh Foodbank and Support 2gether. Music students at North West Regional College, meanwhile, produced two recorded online performances as a special tribute to the NHS, receiving unprecedented levels of social media reach and engagement.