The morning of March 13, 2020, began like a snow day. My roommates and I, all four of us University of Toronto undergraduates, woke up to find out that in-person classes would be cancelled. We slung the news up and down the stairs of our rented house in astonishment: students often joke that U of T doesn’t close for anything except a world war. Of course, that was two days after the World Health Organization had declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and our excitement quickly dissipated as we realized the gravity of the shifts taking place around us.

Emails also came from McGill University, the University of British Columbia, and other postsecondary institutions, each halting in-person instruction or even assessments for several weeks. Classroom doors closed and internet windows opened, but that was just the beginning. During the initial chaos, few students were thinking about the next school year—but now, fall is here, and with it has come an unusual return to classes.

Typically, around 2 million students enrol at Canadian postsecondary institutions each year. By early October, some schools were reporting decreases in enrolment, some noting increases for certain groups, and others still uncertain what their numbers would look like for the rest of 2020/21. What is certain about this fall is that the number of people physically on campus has shrunk dramatically as schools have moved nearly all operations online or shifted to hybrid delivery models. There were no vibrant, obnoxious orientation parades to kick the year off, and there will likely be no crowded study spaces come finals: those situations carry a high risk of viral transmission. Instead, instructors are delivering lectures to students scattered across the globe, who are tuning in from basements and kitchens, nestled into living room couches or lying atop rumpled bedspreads.

Reporting this piece, I spoke with students from universities and colleges across Canada, and most echoed similar concerns. The pandemic, they say, has heightened existing inequalities and problems. Postsecondary students have been thrust into far more uncertainty than their demographic has seen for decades, and the new academic year looks to be the loneliest on record—a new spike in the mental health crisis that has been unfolding on campuses for years.

Planning for a postsecondary degree during a pandemic can feel like driving in thick fog: you can be certain only about what’s immediately ahead, and you know everything beyond that could change in an instant. Still, there are decisions to be made, and institutional timelines wait for no one. Students who aren’t based within a commuting distance from school know this all too well: they have needed to make difficult calls about whether to return to campus, decisions dependent on constantly shifting factors like finances, class offerings, local COVID-19 case numbers, and whether their program includes a hands-on component.

Students described a summer during which some institutions were shifting back and forth between allowing them to stay home and requiring that they be on campus. Seraphina Tsui, a University of Alberta nursing student from BC, says that she and her two roommates decided not to return to Edmonton after an email she says she received from the university in mid-July stated that the school would offer a remote alternative for students who couldn’t be present in the fall. Just as Tsui and her roommates were about to cancel their lease, she says, a faculty member informed them via a private email that plans were changing and nursing students needed to be on campus. With only a few weeks to spare before the beginning of the academic year, Tsui had to once again change her plans for the semester. This level of uncertainty is expected to continue over the coming months as institutions with in-person classes respond to case counts, which are climbing back up in some parts of the country. U of T student William Shapiro initially enrolled in five in-person classes for the winter 2021 semester, but by early October, three of those classes had moved online, prompting him to consider moving back home to BC.

Meanwhile, during the usual back-to-school travel rush, the federal government asked international students not to enter the country for the time being. Only those who were approved for study permits before March 18, or those whose travel was deemed “essential,” were exempted from the restrictions. Others are struggling to manage virtual lectures in different time zones. Nawa Tahir, a U of T international student who stayed in the country after her flight was cancelled, says she has a mandatory tutorial that ends at 6 p.m. ET—3 a.m. in Pakistan, where she would have been if she had left. (Some institutions have asked instructors to record lectures so that students can access them at more convenient times, but this solution poses its own problems when it comes to classes that require participation.)

But, as much as the pandemic has created volatility for students, these new challenges are not appearing in a vacuum: they intersect with existing inequalities. In June, a group of Montreal-area Indigenous students wrote a statement highlighting that, as a result of the pandemic, they face distinct challenges, which include trauma, gaps in academic support, and insufficient technological infrastructure for those who have returned to reserves or isolated communities. Some of this stems from preexisting inequities: for example, Indigenous students face academic, financial, and accessibility-related barriers to higher education straight out of high school, so they’re more likely to enter postsecondary as mature students with parental responsibilities. As well, a TD poll released in July demonstrated that the pandemic’s economic fallout has been felt most by young Canadians and by those who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour. Even before the pandemic, visible-minority groups experienced poverty, low-income employment, and precarious work at higher rates than white Canadians did. Then, when lockdown was declared, young and low-income workers were overrepresented in job losses. The instability that students of colour are enduring will undoubtedly affect the way that they experience and engage with education in the coming months.

Likewise, the shortcomings of the fall are deeply felt by those in unstable home environments. One student, who left her province to attend university as a result of substance abuse and marital discord at home, could no longer justify the cost of living close to campus if she wasn’t attending in-person classes. While she was studying for her winter-semester finals in her parents’ house, her mother tried to serve her father with divorce papers. Being at home has worsened her stress and made it very difficult to focus on schoolwork. Beyond academics, a lack of safety and privacy at home can complicate access to teletherapy, meaning that some of the students who need mental health support the most may not receive it.

University of British Columbia student Masha Michouris says students with accommodations are also often overlooked. Michouris, who’s registered with UBC’s Centre for Accessibility for her ADHD and anxiety, is usually allowed to take tests in a quieter space where she can stand up and walk around. Now, with students taking assessments from home, some instructors have turned to exam-monitoring software, such as Proctorio, which records and then reports what it considers suspicious behaviour. This includes looking around the room or anywhere other than the computer screen where the test is being administered. The program also flags when a student gets up or leaves view of the webcam.

For Michouris, who was fortunate enough to dodge the software when classes moved online in the spring but encountered it while taking the LSAT, Proctorio exams become a problem due to her ADHD medication, which causes severe mouth dryness and requires that she drink a lot of water. In turn, she frequently needs to use the washroom—something the software may flag. “It put me in this very uncomfortable situation where I either don’t take my medication so that I don’t have to worry about getting up and using the washroom, or I take the medication so I can focus and I don’t need to worry about being red flagged for constantly looking around.” It’s not hard to see how such moves toward automated processes during the pandemic could introduce new stressors, exacerbate inequity, and even reverse some of accessibility centres’ efforts to improve test-taking experiences for those with disabilities or health concerns.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that some students have demanded alterations to fees, citing the unavailability of campus facilities, the reduced quality of online classes, and the inconveniences of remote education. They argue that an online education is not worth the thousands—and, for international students, tens of thousands—of dollars in fees that a regular academic year costs. Sharon Stein, an assistant professor in the department of educational studies at UBC, understands this frustration; still, she emphasizes that institutional costs will remain mostly unchanged when campuses go online. She explains that the cost of maintaining physical campuses is sustained even when they’re empty, especially “if we’re trying to do right by our staff.” Faculty members have expressed frustration with the workload of online teaching: in addition to regular class preparation, they may be required to produce independent-learning materials and troubleshoot technical difficulties, time that can go unpaid. “Courses have to be rethought from the ground up,” one UBC instructor wrote on Twitter.

Schools are severely dependent on tuition for their operational costs: between the academic years of 2009/10 and 2015/16, public funding for postsecondary institutions declined by 19 percent, creating a gap that was largely filled by hikes in international students’ fees. Stein says the current funding model doesn’t have to be this way: although she doesn’t find the prospect of change likely, “we could theoretically raise levels of public funding for higher education, which would lower tuition costs for students.” Perhaps this is one of the systems she’s referring to when she says that, although some people are yearning for normality, “there are other people who think a return to normal may not be possible—and maybe it’s not desirable, because maybe the normal was characterized by unequal, unsustainable systems and relationships.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to the postsecondary experience than academics. Schools—and students—will have to try to replicate campus communities online. Clubs and associations are already facilitating digital events and meetings. But Lauren Hill, the speaker of the legislative council of the Students’ Society of McGill University, worries that organizations will struggle to bridge the disconnect, communicate opportunities, and recruit new members. Even if students find out about virtual events, they may not be as inclined to attend. “For a lot of first-years who are coming in not knowing anyone, going into a club on your own and not being able to recruit a friend to come along is very intimidating,” Hill explains. Learning from home, she adds, has also been a solitary and disappointing experience. “Pulling an all-nighter in your bedroom studying isn’t as memorable as on floor six of McLennan at McGill,” Hill says, recounting 4 a.m. Tim Hortons runs and library get-togethers with her friends, now thousands of kilometres away.

First-years and other students in transitional periods may feel the consequences of isolation most. According to a 2014 paper published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education, it’s common for students to experience rocky transitions to university, and social support is key to their successful academic and emotional integration. Veronica Ford, who’s transferring between Langara College and the British Columbia Institute of Technology this fall, tells me that she was apprehensive about entering a new school and meeting new people, especially since online interactions trigger her anxiety. She’s even more concerned that a remote education will reduce her ability to learn: she relies on the interactive environment of a classroom to bolster her memory of course content. When I suggest to Ford that creating a group chat with her peers may be helpful, she tells me she’s tried—they don’t always engage.

For young adults, there’s a significant correlation between social isolation and deteriorating mental health, says Peter Szatmari, a specialist in child and youth mental health. Mental health challenges are often episodic, but the longer those episodes last, the more difficult they are to leave behind—and the more likely they are to have lasting consequences. That’s crucial for emerging adults because poor mental health, he says, is most common in young adulthood and, once developed, can carry over into later life. He also notes that young adults are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of isolation because they’re in a developmental period of life that determines “many long-term outcomes,” like “romantic relationships, long-term friendships, job networking, and career development.” However, Danilo Bzdok, who co-authored a June paper on the long-term effects of isolation and loneliness, emphasizes that the social isolation associated with this pandemic is exceptional and unique, and there’s an enormous need for further research on the human brain’s relationship with loneliness. It’s likely, then, that we’ll understand the broader consequences of heightened postsecondary isolation only in retrospect.

Still, the pandemic has added a layer to an existing crisis. For at least a decade before COVID-19, student bodies at Canadian postsecondary institutions were already rife with loneliness and battling severe mental health crises. As student demand for meaningful mental health support has ballooned, counselling and wellness services have struggled to keep up, sometimes resulting in wait times that span several months. “I’ve had a series of mental health issues, like coming in first year with depression and anxiety,” Hill says, “so I can definitely say that, without a social network, I wouldn’t have remained [at McGill].”

Some students have gone to great lengths to make sure their treatment isn’t interrupted during the pandemic. Tahir tells me that, after her flight home was cancelled, her mental health kept her in Toronto over the spring and summer despite an aching homesickness. She’s seeing a doctor with U of T’s Health and Wellness Centre for her mental health, but the moment she leaves Canada, these services will be unavailable to her. Outside the country, she would have access only to a university service that would help her plan her care going forward. But there is more stigma around mental health issues in Pakistan, she says, and finding a qualified doctor will be difficult: the country lacks official licensing regulations for mental health professionals, meaning that individuals with minimal credentials may practice, and doctors aren’t held accountable for ethical misconduct, like breach of patient confidentiality. As a result, going home would mean that she experiences a gap in her care.

Tahir’s situation is not specific to U of T. “One-on-one appointments with a mental health professional can happen only when the student is within the jurisdiction of that professional’s regulatory body,” explains Vera Romano, director of McGill’s Student Wellness Hub. (Although, like U of T, McGill also offers a bridging program to help students find care in their communities.) The organization has been working to fill these gaps with virtual workshops and a new resilience project that will embed wellness skills in McGill’s culture. In broader terms, the hub’s team hopes to foster community connectedness in a way that will keep vulnerable students from falling through the cracks. The spring and summer provided opportunities for them to try new things; this fall, they rolled out the support they’ve found most meaningful, including an online outreach program for first-year engineering students. “A sense of community is such a protective factor for any challenge,” Romano acknowledges.

Medical experts suggest that, even if a vaccine is approved soon, physical distancing and masks may be necessary for two to three more years. That means remote and hybrid learning could last well beyond 2021. Already, several schools have committed to offering many winter 2021 classes exclusively online. There’s value, then, in looking ahead. “There’s another way of looking at this moment as a learning opportunity to prepare our students to face the complexities, the uncertainties, and the contradictions of this rapidly changing world that they are going to inherit,” Stein says.

Maybe the resilience we need to reckon with that world is already forming within universities—and maybe it’s been some time in the making. Since I began my undergrad, two years ago, U of T’s student body has lost multiple members to suicide. Prepandemic, our status quo was already deeply broken: Western academic institutions have long been infused with hostility toward BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ students and have presented barriers for disabled and low-income students. Although I wish this wasn’t the case, the student communities I know and love are no strangers to crisis, to difficulty, to rampant inequality. Now, the students I speak with share their uncertainties with me openly, finding optimism in their circumstances and empathizing with those whom they feel have it worse. Vivian Qiang, who’s completing her fourth year at McGill from home, says she misses her friends and on-campus club activities but is grateful that McGill has committed to keeping its community safe. Michouris, also in the last year of her undergrad, is saddened at the possibility of not having a graduation ceremony; still, she’s looking forward to finishing school and beginning new journeys.

This year, student supports and services will play catch-up, as Stein puts it, due to a lack of preexisting infrastructure. With that in mind, there’s a question she wants to pose “to institutional leaders especially”: Will they continue pretending that crises like COVID-19 are blips in an otherwise functional status quo, or is it time to reconsider educational priorities in anticipation of an unstable future? “There’s an Inuit artist, Taqralik Partridge, who has said that COVID-19 may just be a warning shot for what is to come. I agree with her,” Stein says, telling me that institutions must shift toward equipping students to deal with uncertainty. “I think there are larger storms on the horizon related to climate change, related to economic insecurity and political instability.” These crises are on their way whether we like it or not, she says. “So, are we going to put our heads in the sand? Or are we going to face the storm that is coming and learn how to dance with it?”

Jadine Ngan
Jadine Ngan (@jadinengan) is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Toronto Life, and Broadview.
Natalie Vineberg
Natalie Vineberg is a designer at the Washington Post and a former designer for The Walrus.