Online Learning Is Impacting Students’ Mental Health

Online Learning Is Impacting Students’ Mental Health (Photo: PeopleImages/GettyImages)

Oakton, VAAs I was packing my final suitcase to leave for my freshman year, Columbia University unexpectedly announced its decision to hold classes entirely online, canceling student housing offers. In a moment, my high school dreams of moving to the city for college were cut off before they could even begin.

For some of my classmates, the news came too late. My roommate had already arrived in New York. Another friend was boarding her flight when she got the news. Many of my friends were relying on the university for housing. Just days after receiving our room assignments, we were left scrambling for options. 

Columbia University’s last-minute decision is an extreme example of a choice many college campuses are now facing: how to keep students safe, while ensuring we have access to the education we earned and are paying for. Harvard decided to move fully online long before the school year even began. Just days after opening, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill proved it couldn’t handle the challenges of an in-person education, sending students without special circumstances packing. Last month, the University of Alabama reported more than 560 new cases after resuming classes. 

At minimum, every college student in the country is experiencing a diminished social life, a (partially or wholly) online education and new challenges surrounding the coronavirus. For some students, the decisions colleges make in response to the pandemic are the difference between a stable home and an abusive one, reliable internet access and buffering zoom calls or mental stability and turmoil. We are facing an epidemic of loneliness, while attempting to connect through a computer screen. In short, we’re struggling, and it’s time we acknowledge the mental health impacts of all this, which are serious

I’ve spent the summer talking to students across the nation about how they want their colleges to support them during this challenging time. Here are their recommendations: 

Create easily-accessible resources for students, both online and in-person: 

As colleges prepare to respond to the effects of COVID-19 on students’ physical health, they also need to prepare for the effects on students’ mental health. No two students will experience the coronavirus pandemic in the same way, and it’s important that professors and faculty reflect that in their programming. Some students need more help navigating our healthcare system, others need support groups, one-on-one advising or online social events.

Target the students who need help the most: 

Colleges need to cast a wide net with their programs and pour extra resources into the groups bearing the brunt of the virus and its ripple effects. They need to be developing general, accessible resource hubs and programs to target BIPOC, LGBTQ+, international, first-generation and low-income students. Every student on a college campus should know where to go if they’re having a mental health crisis. We’ll need access to a variety of resources, including support lines, a contact at the college’s health center and toolkits that outline processes like intake, reporting discrimination and more.

Beyond providing a place to access help, university administrators and faculty need to focus on bridging communication divides between students and educators, to ensure that if students face external hardship, their education won’t suffer as a result. Some schools have even begun to provide email templates for students to reach out to their professors, should they need extensions or extra help in class.

Create opportunities to socialize online: 

For many of us, the most fulfilling, purposeful learning happens in dorm rooms, common areas and cafeteria halls. Or at least, it was supposed to. As colleges transition to online and hybrid models, finding digital alternatives to social spaces is vital. Particularly for first-year students, many of whom don’t enter college with a strong support system, building out online socials and meeting groups for students with similar interests can help establish a community in a time where students need it most. In order to replicate the ways in which students would otherwise make friends, student leaders and faculty should center activities around club meetings, socials within majors and random, more dorm-like chances to hang out.

Communicate, communicate, communicate: 

The American Council on Education found over and over again that what students need most as they start school during COVID-19 is clear and consistent communication. The nature of a pandemic is that it changes rapidly and sharply. In many cases, seemingly in an effort to shield students from the messy realities of a 2020 education, colleges go radio-silent, while students remain worried and confused. When Columbia University decided to shut down campus, the issues that struck students most stemmed from a lack of communication. What will happen to students in need of emergency housing? How will first-years find community? How will the university move forward?

Today, while the day-to-day realities of a 2020 education continue to take shape, students want to know how their schools will move forward. Communication happens in a myriad of ways, from social media posts to written emails to videos. The simple, albeit unfortunate, reality is that navigating a pandemic is messy and complex. But clear, consistent communication about how colleges are responding can eliminate the questions and help students and faculty prepare for what this new reality means for each of us.

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