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Worldwide, lives are stressed and strained by COVID-19. Nowhere is that more evident than in the lives of students, staff and faculty members engaged in the transformed role of online learning.

October 1, 2020
 

As higher education adapts to teaching and learning at a distance, the workload and the learning load of adopting a new delivery mode is taking a huge toll on the lives of those in higher education. This is an immense problem that is growing rapidly. While there are some students who are thriving through online learning, the toll of the virus, isolation, increased workloads and other associated effects are rising among many students, staff and faculty members. It must not be underestimated. Every institution must address these challenges that threaten the well-being of their constituents.

Faculty members are feeling the huge stress of remaking their classes into effective digital forms. The additional workload and concomitant anxiety are heaped upon the already multifaceted responsibilities of faculty. The added load has heightened the concerns over faculty burnout. So many faculty members who already live on the edge of burnout in meeting the teaching, advising, research and publication expectations are facing an emotional letdown or even collapse.

Too often we separate the consideration of mental health from physical health. These two are deeply interrelated. The mental and emotional pressures faculty and students may be experiencing can be expressed in deteriorated physical health. Anxiety and stress can lower immunity, subjecting people to illness, and not just the common cold. People with high levels of self-reported distress are found to be 32 percent more likely to die of cancer; depression has been associated with heart disease. These are not trivial effects. They are life altering and destructive.

Most students are feeling the strain. For many, that strain begins with the eyes. Those unaccustomed to squinting at poorly adjusted computer screens in suboptimum ambient lighting are subjected to eyestrain that can have lasting effects. Ophthalmologists recommend taking breaks from screen reading every 20 minutes and adjusting room lighting to avoid glare and reflections.

Supporting the mental health needs of online students is a critical mission for each university. The radical change in lifestyle can feed loneliness, anxiety and even lead to depression. Faculty members are now at the front line of responsibility for identifying emotional and mental health issues. No one else is monitoring the students in most cases. On campus, those students may be observed by classmates, resident advisers and other campus staff who observe students informally every day. But, online, those students often are not seen by fellow students, advisers or others. They are living in unobserved anonymity. Faculty are often the primary direct contact with online students. A number of key indicators of possible concern are identified in this article by Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, which cites important research by Bonny Barr of Creighton University.

The COVID-19 crisis is taking a heavy toll, much of which has not been recorded. But, early on, it is clear that the stresses are disproportionately placed on the shoulders of women. The international aid organization CARE conducted a study of indirect impacts of the crisis among more than 10,000 men and women:

One of the biggest disparities they found in their research was that 27% of women had reported increases in challenges in relation to mental illness. This compared to 10% of men. They identified that due to the fact that unpaid labor in the house had increased exponentially in many cases this had led to stress, worries about food, work and health care. Women were also almost twice as likely to report that accessing quality healthcare services that they needed had been harder during the pandemic.

The report also found that more than half of the women studied had encountered some sort of income loss as had one-third of the men. The loss of income, added to the pressures of less contact with others and the need to adapt to digital exchanges makes for even more challenges.

So, those at the front line of engaging students have enhanced responsibilities in this COVID time. We need to be both vigilantly observant of possible symptoms of serious problems while at the same time, being gracefully supportive of our learners. As Howard Aldrich, Kenan Professor of Sociology at UNC Chapel Hill, writes:

Remember to be flexible and empathetic. As one commentator noted, “College students taking classes this fall are likely to be unusually vulnerable and will need lots of support as they navigate financial, health, and safety concerns.” The students who were most disadvantaged before COVID are also most likely the students who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-related deaths and illnesses, financial challenges, and other stresses due to unfolding political events.

Do your faculty members know what to look for in identifying emotionally struggling students, especially, do they know how to connect these students to help? Is there an enhanced institutionwide atmosphere of generosity, support, tolerance and grace in this COVID time? What are you doing to help address this slowly unfolding crisis?

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