By Andrew Crosby, Teaching Assistant for the Department of Sociology and Anthropology

The COVID-19 pandemic is painstakingly persistent and has created cycles of disruption for in-person learning on Ontario’s university campuses (and beyond). Now in the fourth wave with a prolific omicron variant, the prior confidence levels of university officials in hosting classes in-person beginning in January 2022 was shattered as case counts rose to immeasurable levels in Ontario.

While governing officials stopped counting positive COVID-19 cases, Carleton students continued to count down the number of credit courses required to graduate. We may soon be approaching a time where students entering a degree program in the 2019-2020 academic year may have a majority of credits obtained through online learning. Yet online learning is taking its toll on students in a variety of areas, with impacts on learning, work options, finances and especially mental health. As students suffer from ongoing social isolation, educators have an opportunity to encourage student engagement by facilitating access to extracurricular activities.

As students struggle to adjust receiving a postsecondary education online, university officials and educators must always remain one step ahead—adapting to various (and seemingly unpredictable) pandemic waves—to ensure the least amount of disruption to students’ degree programs. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented immense challenges for postsecondary education (Daniel 2020), invoking a shift to “crisis leadership” (Marshall et al. 2020) and prompting a variety of policy responses (El Masri and Sabzalieva 2020). Forced to adapt quickly to different online course delivery methods (Mazzucato et al. 2021), educators themselves have dealt with numerous pandemic waves and cycles (VanLeeuwen et al. 2021) and are experiencing burnout (Sokal et al. 2020), even if at lower rates than over-taxed health care workers.

This pedagogical shift has been challenging for educators, course instructors and teaching assistants alike. Educators were forced to shift their curricula and course delivery methods online, compelled to adapt as quickly as students to the evolving postsecondary pandemic landscape. Course instructors were required to choose a method of course delivery out of three primary options: synchronous, asynchronous, blended. All three options have their benefits and downsides, depending on who you ask.

As a student and educator at Carleton University, I have experience with all three models, each of which have their upsides and drawbacks. Synchronous learning offers structure but can be rigid, asynchronous learning is impersonal but offers flexibility, while the blended approach can offer a balanced combination of both.

What is important for educators to understand is how students are adapting to these options and to provide a supportive learning environment during these trying times.  Educators should prioritize and approach student needs with compassion and empathy. Many students have to work, often precarious and risky jobs in the midst of a pandemic; others have caught COVID-19 and become sick, or are dealing with illness in their families; and many more students are suffering as a result of ongoing social isolation, especially international students (Firang 2020).

The pandemic-prompted shift to online learning has been tough on students studying at Canadian universities. Early on in the pandemic (April 19 to May 1, 2020), Statistics Canada collected data from over 100,000 postsecondary education students in Canada through crowdsourcing questionnaires (Statistics Canada 2020). The survey revealed that students experienced both academic and financial impacts, with over half of those surveyed reporting disruptions to academic coursework or work-placements (Doreleyers and Knighton 2020; Statistics Canada 2020).

In addition, students reported adverse impacts on employment plans accompanying the major labour market disruptions as a result of the pandemic (Wall 2020a). Employment disruptions spilled over into financial concerns and considerations, with almost 60 percent very or extremely worried about losing their job, and over two-thirds extremely concerned about future job prospects (Wall 2020b). The Statistics Canada survey painted a picture of a bleak future anticipated by many Canadian postsecondary students, but what does the emerging literature say about this?

Published academic research thus far has attended to the adverse impacts on mental health on diverse population demographics in Canada (Abba-Aji et al. 2020; Findlay 2020; Nwachukwu et al. 2020), as well as pandemic impacts on the physical health of Canadian university students (Bertrand et al. 2021; Mant et al. 2021), yet more research is required to understand mental health impacts on students studying in Canada. Research published in this area to date has focused on the gender differences in stress and mental health among university students, a study which included Carleton students (Prowse et al. 2021).

Another study examined pandemic impacts on students with and without pre-existing mental health concerns and the researchers were surprised to learn that students without pre-existing concerns were more likely to exhibit declining mental health, likely due to increased social isolation (Hamza et al. 2021). With these concerns on the rise, researchers are calling for more mental health supports for students, including prioritizing early prevention and intervention programming to mitigate COVID-19 impacts stemming from social isolation and psychological distress (Hamza et al. 2021).

One area where postsecondary institutions and practitioners could offer further support to students is by encouraging extracurricular engagement and facilitating those types of connections. Students are active at Carleton in hundreds of diverse types of clubs, associations and movements. The undergraduate (CUSA) and graduate (GSA) student unions support a large number of clubs, groups and service centres, and students pay small amounts of auxiliary fees through their tuition to various groups on campus with which they can get involved.

Although none of these groups are currently physically active on campus, many continue to carry out programming and activities online. There are opportunities for students to participate and get involved as a way to break the pandemic patterns of social isolation. Teaching assistants and course instructors should familiarize themselves with the organizational conduits to student involvement (e.g., CUSA, GSA, OPIRG-Carleton, the Student Experience Office, etc.) and educate their students about these opportunities.

While educational literature will inevitably focus on pedagogical shifts and student academic experiences during the pandemic, the importance of extracurricular engagement will likely receive less attention, mirroring the lack of emphasis placed on this by educational officials and practitioners who have focused energies on establishing robust online learning methods, platforms and supports. Teaching assistants and course instructors can play an interventionary role in linking students to campus and community groups that are still active, even if only in an online sense while the burgeoning pandemic necessitates scaling back on social gatherings.

Extracurricular engagement is an often unrecognized but necessary component of a well-rounded educational experience. It is critical for students to supplement the knowledge attained in the academic classroom with real world experience, such as joining a student club, getting involved with a political movement, and bonding with like-minded peers around particular social and cultural issues. Extracurricular engagement is an integral part of the postsecondary experience that has been seized from students and not easily replaced by any pedagogical formula.