Ontario university students grapple with online classes as COVID pandemic continues

TORONTO — Breanna Reid-Clarke has attended all of her college classes for the past two years from her bedroom and it’s taking its toll.

Studying from home in the wake of the pandemic has meant feeling isolated and posed challenges in building strong connections with colleagues and instructors, the 21-year-old says.

Now, even as universities plan for students to gradually return over the next month, some like Reid-Clarke say they don’t hope their post-secondary experiences can be reversed.

“My school experience (was) basically taken from me… so it’s frustrating,” says Reid-Clarke, who studies politics and governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“I don’t really have hope for anything to come back, and if in case it does come back, I just feel like things are going to stop again.”

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Post-secondary institutions moved learning online when the pandemic hit and a return to campus that began in September was put on hold when the Omicron variant arrived late last year. Many universities have now said they plan to gradually return to in-person teaching in the coming weeks.

Reid-Clarke says the uncertainty surrounding her school schedule over the past two years has made it difficult to schedule not only her school activities, but also her shifts at a retail store and student union.

“We don’t really know what we’re constantly doing. And we also have this pressure from our employers to know almost what we’re doing,” she says. “It makes things really, honestly, boring and difficult.”

Erfan Nouraee, a second-year electrical engineering student at York University, hopes the return to campus will happen.

He says he needs access to university labs and equipment to do his research, noting that distance learning has delayed some of his work.

“It’s been really difficult for me to find a place to work on my inventions and projects,” he says. “I was really unsure about it _ what do I really do in the future? Do I have to stop all my work for the coming year?”

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York University was among several post-secondary schools to recently announce a phased return to campus slated to begin Jan. 31. The University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, meanwhile, said classes and on-campus activities will resume Feb. 7.

Ryerson University said it will begin a phased return Jan. 31, with a full return expected by Feb. 28.

“I hope many of you will welcome this return and see it as an opportunity to begin a post-pandemic way of living, learning and working,” Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi wrote in a letter. to students last week.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who has researched educational experiences during the pandemic, says online learning works better for some and less successful for others.

Going to college is about more than just academics, she says, and the online learning that has taken place so far has deprived students of some of the in-person experiences that come with being on the campus.

“They don’t go out for coffee after class, they don’t take what they’ve learned in class to socialize with other students,” she says. “There are great lost opportunities for peer learning, for socializing.”

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Educators are also feeling the impact, she says.

Gallagher-Mackay says she got to know the students she taught in person much better than those she taught online.

“It was just a tiny handful of students who rarely turn on the cameras (who I know well enough to write a letter of recommendation,” she says.

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“I knew a lot of my students in person well enough to talk informally…or get a sense of their interests, why they were taking our program, all that sort of thing. And this two-way knowledge leads students to be more likely to seek help from their professors when they need it.

Kristina Llewellyn, associate professor of social development studies at the University of Waterloo, says distance learning has exacerbated the issues of inequality that some students from equity-seeking communities face when studying. home.

“It’s everything from basic internet access to the time it takes for online learning when juggling a full-time job or other caretaking responsibilities,” she says.

“We know that there is a great inequality when it comes to who has to juggle, for example, during the pandemic, with a full-time position in addition to their apprenticeship.

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The pandemic has also worsened the mental health issues that many college students have had, she says.

“There aren’t enough strong resources on college campuses to address student mental health issues,” she says. “We need to make sure these resources are in place now and after the pandemic.”

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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