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What COVID-19 Taught Me About Our Post-Secondary Institutions and Students

On March 12, in response to the global pandemic, Western University President Alan Sheppard issued a statement indicating that all classes would be transitioned to online-only effective the following Wednesday.Western was not the first, nor the last, post-secondary institution to make such a decision. Although these decisions were fundamental to ensuring health and safety of the communities in which post-secondary institutions are situated, the sudden move to online learning resulted in a tumultuous transition for administrators, faculty members, and students across the province, especially because it happened alongside social distancing, isolation, and returning ‘home’. As the President of the Social Science Students’ Council at Western, I have been, and continue to be, a point-of-contact for students in my faculty who require assistance navigating these changes, as well as a liaison to the Dean’s Office for our students. I would like to share some of what I’ve learned from this unprecedented situation to shed light on the experiences of Western and Ontario students generally. I hope that university administrators and government officials pay attention to student experiences and adapt their approaches to similar situations in the future.

 

First and foremost, I learned that the pandemic is a hindrance to students’ wellness and academic success. I have been approached by students living in northern and rural communities who lack access to a steady Internet connection and are fearful about their ability to complete online timed exams; whose houses do not feel like home and are worried about their ability to concentrate on learning while simultaneously prioritizing their well-being; whose mental health has been tarnished by continued social isolation; and who have been financially-disadvantaged by the pandemic and whose priorities have shifted from writing essays to paying rent. These issues are not endemic to Western but are pervasive across the province and country at large. A recognition of these concerns demands action on the part of our post-secondary institutions and governments.

 

Thankfully, I learned that university officials do, in fact, care. On a call with Social Science’s Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Western, I was assured that administrators are “keeping student perspectives in mind” and encouraging faculty members to be as adaptable as possible.These statements ring true with my personal experiences and those of my peers; given the circumstances, educators and administrators have done what they can to ensure that the well-being of their students continues to be a top priority. For example, some professors have adapted grading schemes and lecture materials and Dean’s Offices have encouraged greater leniency from academic counselling offices and utilized courier services to maintain communication with students lacking Internet access.According to 2020 OUSA Award in Teaching Excellence recipient Dr. Nicole Campbell, in response to the transition to online learning, "faculty, staff, and administrators came together with a shared vision and worked tirelessly to prioritize transparency and equity.University officials have recognized that Ontario students are not disinterested or lazy; they are understandably struggling. 

 

I have also learned that our provincial and federal governments are essential to ensuring our students are able to adequately adjust to online-only learning and the wellness-related concerns associated with the pandemic. Although this requires supporting post-secondary institutions, this alone isn’t enough to ensure the well-being of our students who have needs that extend beyond the classroom. For example, the pandemic has made many post-secondary students income insecure and anxious about their ability to afford the upcoming fall semester. I am therefore thankful for the federal government’s creation of the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit and the host of other measures announced on April 22. As well, social distancing and self-isolation have been linked to increases in domestic violence.The federal government’s investment of $40 million in Women and Gender Equality Canada, albeit not directly related to post-secondary education, is a positive step to support the well-being of students experiencing domestic violence. Moreover, COVID-19 has been linked to increases in stress, anxiety, and other mental health-related challenges.The federal investment of $7.5 million in Kids Help Phoneis another essential step to supporting the well-being of students. Simply put, I have learned that in order to support students, our governments must not only support post-secondary institutions, but also invest in a range of programs to support students’ mental, sexual, financial, and physical wellness.

 

Students who are fortunate enough to live in a safe home with adequate financial assets and a strong Internet connection have a greater propensity to succeed in this new context. As such, I worry about the potential for our academic institutions to inadvertently assess students on the basis of their privilege, rather than intellect and merit. To avoid this, students must continue to be provided with the support they need to level the playing field and maintain access to equal opportunities for academic success. I am a proud Mustang, Ontarian, and Canadian because my university and governments have taken action; from Western implementing the Student Relief Fund and subsidizing residence for international students over the summer, to both levels of government implementing interest-free moratoriums on loan repayments, and the federal government announcing the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit, it is clear that these institutions are working to ensure the continued success of our students. This important work must continue to be done to adequately equip our universities and care providers with the resources they need to ensure the well-being of all students. This is especially the case for international students who have largely been overlooked by government initiatives with respect to housing and repatriation (where necessary). 

 

As a student leader, my greatest takeaways from this pandemic has been that Ontario students are resilient and that they truly care about their education. Our schools and governments must continue to support our future leaders for the benefit of our province and economy.

The author would like to acknowledge the hard-working student leaders at the Social Science Students’ Council who contributed their experiences and feedback to this piece.

[1] Alan Shepard, “COVID-19 Information for the Campus Community,” in Western University

March 12, 2020. https://www.uwo.ca/coronavirus/updates/march12-8.html.

[2] Dan Shrubsole, phone call with author, March 19, 2020.

[3]  Dan Shrubsole, e-mail correspondence to author, April 11, 2020.

[4] Nicole Campbell, e-mail correspondence to author, April 13, 2020.

[5] Omar Sachedina and Jonathan Forani, “Domestic Violence Increases with 'Stay Home' 

Pandemic Response,” in CTV News, April 7, 2020, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/

coronavirus/domestic-violence-increases-with-stay-home-pandemic-response-1.4885597.

[6] “Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” in CAMH, April 6, 2020, 

https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-health-and-covid-19.

[7] Elise Darwishelise, “Federal Funding Supports New Online Mental Health Resources for 

Canadians during Pandemic,” in Global News, April 8, 2020, 

https://globalnews.ca/news/6795639/mental-health-resources-canada-federal-funding/.

 

Sources: 

Aiello, Rachel. “PM Trudeau Announces $9B in New COVID-19 Funding for Students.” In 

CTV News, April 22, 2020. https://www.ctvnews.ca/mobile/canada/

pm-trudeau-announces-9b-in-new-covid-19-funding-for-students-1.4906564.

 

“Canadian Postsecondary Enrolments and Graduates, 2017/2018.” In Statistics Canada

February 19, 2020. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200219/dq200219b-

eng.htm.

 

“Changes to Canada Summer Jobs Program to Help Businesses and Young Canadians Affected 

by COVID-19.” In Prime Minister of Canada, April 8, 2020. https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/

news-releases/2020/04/08/changes-canada-summer-jobs-program-help-businesses-and-

young.

 

Darwishelise, Elise. “Federal Funding Supports New Online Mental Health Resources for 

Canadians during Pandemic.” In Global News, April 8, 2020. 

https://globalnews.ca/news/6795639/mental-health-resources-canada-federal-funding/.

 

“Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” In CAMH, April 6, 2020. 

https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-health-and-covid-19.

 

Sachedina, Omar, and Jonathan Forani. “Domestic Violence Increases with 'Stay Home' 

Pandemic Response.” In CTV News, April 7, 2020. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/

coronavirus/domestic-violence-increases-with-stay-home-pandemic-response-1.4885597.

 

Shepard, Alan. “COVID-19 Information for the Campus Community.” In Western University

March 12, 2020. https://www.uwo.ca/coronavirus/updates/march12-8.html.