Back to school in a pandemic: A student perspective

The COVID-19 pandemic has created complex challenges across nearly every facet of society, students included. As the pandemic emerged through the spring and kept its grip into the summer, there has been no shortage of emotional and financial turbulence. In March, post-secondary students experienced the panic of packing up and storing their possessions at a moment’s notice when residences and campuses shut down. The summer has proven difficult for many financially; students who thought they had summer jobs had placements postponed or eliminated. As we look toward fall, the turbulence has yet to abate. 

I’ve experienced some of this turbulence firsthand as a student at Carleton University and up close during my Policy/Public Affairs summer co-op position at Polytechnics Canada. Given my proximity to the issue, I wanted to highlight three of the ways government can make a stronger impact for students moving forward: 

  • Help is required to ensure students can access the technologies they need to thrive in their new remote learning environment; 
  • Support is needed to maintain high-quality education at institutions as they transition to remote and physically distanced environments; and 
  • A continued focus on the mental health of learners is essential given the tremendous stress of COVID-19. 

In just a few short weeks, students will be thrust into an almost entirely remote learning environment. One of the most significant hurdles they will face is access to the technology they need to attend online courses and labs. At minimum, learners will need a device that can connect to the internet, access to basic word processing software and a reliable internet connection. For students in technology-intensive programs, their hardware, software and bandwidth needs will be more substantial. Ensuring that education is accessible to all should be an immediate priority for the federal government. 

It is surprising how few students have access to these basics. Over 30% of Canadians living in rural areas lack the internet connectivity speeds considered necessary by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. A quarter of lower-income Canadian households use smartphones as their primary way to access the internet. While students could previously access internet, computers and specialized software on campus, this is no longer an option. Some institutions have set up laptop loaner programs, but there aren’t enough devices to meet demand. Many students will be forced to make tough decisions to purchase the required technology and many more will be forced to “get creative” to access the internet. This will impact lower-income students more, with long-term consequences on equality and social mobility in Canada.

The delivery of teaching and learning will also face significant challenges this fall. It is important to both students, who pay thousands of dollars to study at world-class institutions, and the public, who rely on the future participation of those students in the workforce, that education remains high-quality. While some courses will translate more easily into online formats, those that are hands-on and applied – in the skilled trades and healthcare, for example – present unique challenges. To deliver these courses in a remote format effectively, institutions may need to purchase simulators, make investments in virtual laboratories and expand the use of virtual and augmented reality. 

Where courses are offered in-person, doing so safely will require adjustments to account for COVID-19. The number of students allowed in any one area will be significantly reduced, meaning specialized labs will have to be open longer hours. Some spaces may require the construction of physical barriers between students. It will also be necessary to greatly enhance cleaning measures. These efforts place an additional financial burden on post-secondary institutions at a time when students are looking for savings in recompense for the loss of the complete “student experience.” 

Here, the federal government should provide financial support to post-secondary institutions as they supplement their digital and remote learning infrastructure and implement effective distancing measures. While these transitions come at a cost, delivering quality learning in a safe environment is critical to a strong and resilient talent pipeline through the pandemic and beyond. 

Finally, I believe additional mental health supports are necessary. Students have been forced to put their lives on hold. Beyond a loss of routine and structure, many needed to move back in with their parents and have been unable to socialize with friends and classmates. Support systems have been lost or disrupted. Some students were infected and others witnessed their friends and loved ones become ill. I hope to see broad, ongoing investments in mental health. 

Given the hardships of the past six months, I think most students would agree that these changes are necessary. While the whole of the community must be considered, the needs of students cannot be overlooked. COVID brought many struggles but I know my cohort will not be defined by this struggle – my generation is resilient. Providing effective supports to students now serves Canada’s future. 

About the Author

Matthew Winter

At the time of publication, Matthew Winter was a Policy/Public Affairs Summer Student at Polytechnics Canada.