COVID-19: The View from Here

New Normal. Social distancing. Clap for carers. What began as an unknown illness making a few headlines in February 2020 became a global pandemic in a matter of weeks, and a year on, a catalogue of new words and phrases is firmly in our everyday vocabulary. As we worked from kitchen tables, stalked the supermarkets shelves for tinned tomatoes and attempted to home educate our children, COVID-19 shook economies, forced social lives online and spurred a race to produce a vaccine against the virus that has killed more than two million people worldwide. All across the globe, personal and professional lives will never look the same again.

We asked some of our alumnae to reflect on a time that none of us will ever forget.


GDST alumnae

Dr Eleanor Plews

Oxford High School alumna, Dr Eleanor Plews, is a junior doctor at a busy London teaching hospital. She is one of hundreds of GDST women who have been at the frontline during the pandemic, and we are grateful to them all.

What were you doing at the start of 2020?

Graduating in the Summer of 2019, I had just made the big move to begin my job in a busy London hospital. By February, I felt I was finding my feet; enjoying my work and life in the capital. I think back to when the first patients with Coronavirus came into the hospital – there was fear, but life carried on.

However, within a week everything changed. Colleagues were becoming ill themselves and I was transferred from one department to another to provide cover.

As a doctor in my first year of training I provided cover to the wards out-of-hours and at night. I was working on night shifts in those early weeks and every patient I saw was COVID positive. I remember the sound of my bleep going all through the night with my nursing colleagues asking for medical reviews of their patients. I remember running down dimly lit corridors with blood samples to run tests. I remember confirming that the worst had happened and trying to provide support to families.


“It has been a time of the very darkest nights yet there have been some moments of hope”


Did you see any positives during those difficult days?

Suddenly, there was more support for us: a brand new year group of doctors stepped up—forfeiting their graduation celebrations; those that retired returned to clinical practice; mothers left their newborns to come back from their maternity leave early. We worked closely in teams; I was supported at difficult times and decisions were never made alone. Every Thursday at 8pm I would be on the edge of tears walking towards the start or end of my shift and hearing the applause of those staying at home. Food donations were pouring in to the hospital so that after a 13-hour shift I could sleep rather than queue for the supermarket round the corner.

My story won’t be different to the scores of GSDT women working in healthcare settings across the world. It has been a time of the very darkest nights yet there have been some moments of hope. We have had to be adaptable, determined and empathetic. I hope I have done my profession proud.


GDST alumnae Debbie Wosskow OBE

Sheffield Girls’ alumna Debbie Wosskow is the co-founder of AllBright, a members’ club and community that celebrates and connects women at work. She is the former Chair of Sharing Economy UK and is a member of the Mayor of London’s Business Advisory Board.

What were you doing at the start of 2020?

Our objective at Allbright is to build a global sisterhood of awesome, connected women. The business is two years old, and we have physical spaces in London and Los Angeles. At the start of 2020, we had just opened our LA club so I was flying to LA once every three weeks, and we were figuring out opening in New York.

What impact has COVID had on your business?

The main thing that COVID did for us was accelerate all of the digital plans and pivot the strategy to be more digital. The business was driven by the physical until the beginning of 2020, and now it’s the reverse. The big success story of COVID for us has been the growth of our digital platform, and our digital membership.

What impact do you feel this pandemic has had on working women?

It has predominantly been women who have carried the mental load of the house, the children, home-schooling while trying to work or run a business from home and drive revenue and invest in culture. We did a study called Making It Work, which shows that two thirds of women in the UK want to pivot in their careers as a result of the pandemic. I think that’s because it’s made us more focused on what work can mean, how we want to work, what it means to have an entrepreneurial mindset.

Have you seen any positives come out of the pandemic?

We’ve got one dog in the fight, which is the impact that this has on women, and I think one of the hugely positive things to come out of this is that I don’t think working from home was really taken seriously by the corporates or by company executives as a real option until now.

Are you optimistic for UK businesses for the future?

Being optimistic is part of the DNA of an entrepreneur. We need to be positive, and look for the opportunities, but don’t get me wrong: it’s going to be really hard. The day that we had to furlough all our club staff while my business partner had COVID was a pretty dark day. But tenacity and grit are the two most important qualities for any entrepreneur. It’s what I have learned from my mother and my grandmother who were entrepreneurs, and from being in a girls’ school where everything seemed possible. All those things taught me that you’ve got to keep fighting and pivoting. I feel that the answers to positivity lie with women. That’s the opportunity and this is our moment, we can’t let this set feminism back 30 years.


“This is our moment; we can’t let this set feminism back 30 years”


GDST alumnaeNatasha Leaver

Sutton High School alumna Natasha Leaver is a West End stage actor and dancer, currently working as a drama and dance teacher.

What were you doing at the start of 2020?

On Monday 16th March, at the time of our daily warm-up, I, along with the whole of the company of Hamilton: An American Musical was asked to meet on stage. We were told that with Boris Johnson’s recommendation to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres prior to the official lockdown, the theatre was no longer a safe and secure working environment. We packed some of our personal belongings (thinking we’d be back on stage in two weeks) but the following Monday, the country went into a national lockdown.

What’s happened since then?

As a Union representative, I have been involved in negotiations with many West End producers, to discuss huge adjustments to our contracts, along with around 60 others from different West End shows. It was a very scary time because producers were not obliged to pay their employees or indeed keep anyone employed, and that put thousands of people’s livelihoods at risk. Some casts were lucky enough to receive a small grant-style payment from their producers, but for the majority, this wasn’t enough to survive on. Hamilton, along with most other productions, has been closed since 16th March. We don’t currently have any idea when we might return to work.

How have you pivoted things since then?

I have taught children’s dance lessons from a young age so I’ve been able to host a multitude of ‘Hamilton-Style’ workshops, both in-person and via Zoom, as well as teaching for private events and weekly classes at the London Dance Academy.

For you, have any good things come from this?

I was desperate to do something to support all the amazing parents trying to juggle childcare and working from home during lockdown, so I have written a children’s podcast where my little listeners get to decide how the story develops. I love that I have had time to do this, and hopefully bring a lot of joy and fun in this strange time to the children I teach.

What do you think are the long-term prospects for the creative industries?

I am 95% certain that live entertainment will bounce back as it always has done. There is no experience comparable to live events, however much we all love television and other pre-recorded media. Palpable, human energy transcending from the stage to the audience and vice versa, is a unique experience.


GDST alumnaeElaine Osei-Kofi

Sydenham High School alumna Elaine Osei-Kofi is a senior field clinical research associate for a pharmaceutical company.

What were you doing at the start of 2020?

I work on behalf of pharma companies. My job is to go into test centres to make sure that the drugs companies are following all the regulations set by the Department of Health. I make sure that the data is correct, that the patients are being treated correctly and I check for the efficacy of the drugs. My data is used to confirm that the drugs are safe and efficacious. This then means that the pharmaceutical companies can sell into the market.

How did that change with the onset of COVID-19?

The first thing was that I lost my job (I spent five months completely out of work). Now, I’m working for a biotech company which focuses on oncology, where I’m working on a breast cancer study. The drug I am working on is currently being marketed in the US, but will hopefully be released in the UK market soon.

What impact has the pandemic had on drugs research

There has, of course, been a huge amount of money spent on researching a vaccine for COVID-19, as well as looking at drugs to treat the virus and conditions that relate to it. On the other hand, there has been a lot of disruption in hospitals, with no research nurses in hospitals. I think people learnt a lot of lessons in the lockdown, so we are now seeing dedicated specialists in hospitals.


GDST alumnaeKathryn Saunders

Kathryn Saunders, a Newcastle High School for Girls alumna, is a careers consultant at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

What were you doing at the start of 2020?

As a careers consultant at LSE, my role is to equip students with the tools to articulate their experiences, skills and values in international labour markets; including one-to-one guidance, skills seminars and workshops. I would usually see several students for face-to-face appointments during the day, as well as attend events and meetings. COVID has meant switching my career guidance appointments and skills seminars online.

What’s happened since then?

When it comes to career thinking, the students and professionals I work with have been wrestling with emotional exhaustion and uncertainty about what the future holds. Although navigating the job market has always sparked anxiety for many people, the pandemic has resulted in a significant dip in opportunities available and the largest fall in graduate recruitment since 2008/2009.

With unemployment rates rising, my reassuring patter of telling clients “everything will be okay” no longer felt helpful. Empowering job seekers to take proactive steps to define (or redefine) career goals and adapt in this environment has become more important than ever.

For you, have any good things come from this?

We are living through an unprecedented time but also during a point in history where individuals are displaying amazing acts of human kindness – people want to give back and help others. Whether you need support yourself or know someone who might benefit from your help, there has never been a more important time to reach out.


“We are living through an unprecedented time but also during a point in history where individuals are displaying amazing acts of human kindness”