By: Julia Selfe

Editor | Economics & Policy

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After a year of online school, it is hard to remember what it felt like to be in a lecture hall. For the past year, university students across Canada have been attending classes from their bedrooms. With in-person lectures likely to resume in September, students are eager to put the pandemic behind them. However, students may not have experienced the last of their pandemic blues quite yet. Due to the setbacks the past year presented, the return to in-person classes might not be the cure students are hoping for due to the lasting effects of online school, cancelled job opportunities, and mental health struggles.

The truth about a pandemic education

The online learning environment presented enormous challenges for students across the country. These obstacles may differ between universities, but they have all adversely affected students' academics in ways that will have ongoing repercussions. According to the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), 62% of students felt that online school had negatively affected their educational experience. Significant contributors to students’ negative experience this year included issues surrounding their quality of learning, such as the lack of communication between students and professors, poor teaching methods, and unengaging, self-taught courses (see exhibit one).

Students were also concerned about their ability to absorb course material. In the same survey, 72% of student respondents reported finding it harder to learn in the online environment. Long-term consequences of online school have yet to be uncovered, but a lack of learning over the past year puts students at academic risk for years to come.

More specifically, university professors expect students to apply foundational course materials to their advanced classes. Due to the inefficiencies of online learning, it is unclear if students absorbed course materials as effectively as they would have in in-person classes. As a result, students may need to work harder in the future to get up-to-speed on what they were expected to learn this year.

Another source of lost learning…

In addition to lost learning in the academic environment, students will also suffer because of cancelled summer jobs. When the pandemic struck in March of 2020, many businesses were quick to cancel their summer programs or forced to close their storefronts. According to a survey by Statistics Canada, 30% of post-secondary respondents who had a job lined up for the future at the beginning of March 2020 lost that same job as of April 2020.

Essentially, COVID-19 has made an already competitive job market extremely difficult to enter due to increased restrictions and decreased employee capacity among businesses. These challenges affected not only the business world but also many students. Summer employment contributes to student's professional development, which sets them up for success as they enter the job market. Therefore, students who could not gain this experience during the pandemic have been placed at a disadvantage for future job opportunities.

Mental health setbacks

Lost employment also had adverse effects on students' mental health. In the OCUFA’s survey, 53% of students reported feeling concerned about their financial state due to the pandemic’s influence on their part-time or summer jobs. Many students’ lost employment opportunities occurred during the summer months of 2020. Even with stimulus cheques, students that rely on the summer to earn their yearly income may not have generated sufficient funds to keep them financially comfortable throughout the school year.

In addition to financial stress, students also experienced long periods of isolation due to lengthy quarantines and extended lockdowns. According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 63.8% of youth ages 15-24 reported experiencing overall poor mental health during the pandemic. Some of these experiences include symptoms as serious as depression and anxiety.

For students who have existing mental health conditions, the pandemic has been especially difficult. Students reported finding it increasingly hard to maintain their mental health without the support of in-person therapy and other outlets. For example, many rely on university facilities like gyms, recreational courts, and fitness classes to maintain their mental health. However, due to lockdowns and increased restrictions, these resources have not been accessible.

Unfortunately, the combination of these factors means that many students have experienced some form of mental health trauma throughout the pandemic. It is important to remember that just like any other physical injury, mental health trauma takes time to recover from. Although being back in person may help heal some students from their negative pandemic experiences, mental health trauma for many will not be instantly cured when they return to in-person classes. Some students may need to devote additional resources to improve their mental health like in-person therapy, self-reflection or, simply, more time.

So, what now?

With vaccines now widely available to Canadian citizens, there is finally a sense of hope across the country. Students who have been taking classes from their bedrooms all year will likely get to return to in-person lectures and continue with their university career in a somewhat normal manner. However, as individuals return to campus, they should not expect to put the pandemic behind them just yet. Instead, students will need to prepare for a swift change in pace.

To prepare for their return to campus and mitigate the negative effects of in-person culture shock, students can start by ensuring they have a support system in place, maintaining best practices for mental health, and reviewing their learning needs in an in-person environment.

If students anticipate a challenging transition back to in-person classes, they can talk to a university counsellor. That being said, if students would like to utilize this resource, they will need to reach out far in advance to ensure they can secure these highly demanded appointments. Students can also ensure they are staying mentally healthy by blocking off one hour a day to spend engaging in an enjoyable activity. Many may also need to prepare themselves for in-person lectures. Perhaps this means sitting closer to the professor to ensure effective note-taking, reviewing notes before class to ensure they are prepared for cold calling, or adjusting their sleep schedule to wake up more than five minutes before class.

There is a lot to look forward to as universities begin welcoming students back to campus; however, students must prepare for an adjustment period. Taking precautionary steps will ensure a smooth transition back to in-person classes and help mitigate the lasting effects of online school. With the world finally starting to feel normal again, it is now up to students to decide how they will manage the challenges last year presented.