Disclaimer: The questionnaire that was filled out by students was not approved by an ethics committee, and served the sole purpose of providing non-scientific information for this article. The Flagrant Délit and Alexis Khouzam do not claim responsibility and the identities of the respondents will be kept anonymous.
The year 2020 has definitely shown us more than a fair share of painful events. This year has definitely caused the entire world to shift perspectives and society has been shaken right left and center. We have fallen into a new era. One where we must wear masks, keep 6 feet apart, are afraid to shake hands and have become more disconnected than ever; not to mention the timing being spot on considering this is occurring right as technology has drastically developed, causing even more disconnection. Two decades into the new millennium and humanity has been put to the test yet again.
In attempts to decrease cases of the COVID-19 outbreak, countries have locked down, borders have been closed and people have been confined in their homes. Separation would be the word I’d use to describe this year’s behaviour. Although staying at home, wearing a mask, social distancing and listening to health directives are all essential and important to try and get rid of the pandemic as fast as possible, this divided way of life has also caused and created a new problem on our hands. One that has already existed from the beginning of time but has gotten worse since confinement. It is the mental health crisis. Over the last decade there has been “a broader crisis in youth mental health across Canada, which has seen increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people”. 1 in 5 people in Canada suffer from mental illness. The reasons are fairly clear: human interaction is a fundamental part of life. Human beings are social creatures.
Now, on top of being home most of the time and limiting our trips outside of the house as much as possible, students are one of the groups of people that are suffering most. At first, elementary students were stuck at home for months. They ended their 2019-2020 school year in person on March 13th, 2020. This year, elementary students are going to school in a way that nobody has ever seen before. Although it is crucial and important that their education takes place in person, children wear masks, stay apart from each other and must follow strict directives. When I was a kid, I remember playing outside, being able to see my friends after school, running around and not being afraid of being too close. I for one live with a 10-year-old brother. As mentioned earlier, technology has drastically advanced in the last decade. Young children are now using that technology as the only toys they know. Playing outside can now be a punishment for some. Today, kids keep their eyes wide open planted in front of a screen. Staying inside for kids is detrimental; therefore, in the last few months of their 2019-2020 school year, kids suffered. It was damaging to their health and development. Although going back to school allows them to rebuild those human interactions, as kids should have, their lives are much different from the one we’ve known when we were young. The few months of confinement have definitely impacted the children of the world. In fact, according to Jiancheng Ye, from Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, “children’s mental and behavioral health are vulnerable to risks from the external environment, which will impact their development when they grow up. Limited outdoor activities and lack of interaction with peers have a psychological impact on children as well. Lacking face-to-face contact with classmates and friends…may also be detrimental to children’s overall health”. Kids need to play and have fun, run around and be stress-free for those few years. It’s crucial to their development. As they grow older, they move on to high school. Now, high school is in person but it’s a time where teenagers discover themselves and are on the quest to figure out who they are. Social distancing and going home right after school, with no parties, no friends over, no social get togethers, etc. It definitely adds complexity to an already fragile period in an adolescent’s life.
After high school, there is CEGEP and then University. These academic institutions are ones where school is at its most important. These school years are the steps that come right before the career one wishes to pursue. Stress levels are high, social interactions are very important and motivation and determination are what drive these students to chase their dreams. However, these are the students that are now no longer allowed on campus. These students are often found in their rooms, stuck in front of a screen, the entire day. “C’est très difficile de rester focus devant un écran d’ordinateur pendant une longue période” (it’s hard to stay focused being in front of a screen for a long period of time), one student said on their experience with online learning and closed campuses.
Being able to benefit from education is already a privilege in itself but even more when it’s during a global pandemic. However, adapting education to online is easier said than done. School is difficult, and law studies are no walk in the park. One student expressed the challenges that comes with being a law student saying “le droit est un domaine qui nécessite plus de temps d’études et de lectures à faire que d’autre baccalauréat” (law is a difficult program, one that requires determination and motivation). One first year civil law student, from CEGEP, explains the challenge as she says, “this year is basically self-taught, which gives us an even larger workload, thus leaving very little time to be active and get fresh air”. This student’s comment on activity reflected the university lifestyle that most students look forward to and what brings motivation to their studies. Actually, many first-year students said that they are “missing out on the university experience” they were promised and looking forward to all these years.
Moreover, in shifting school online, confinement, lockdown and a decrease in social interaction are what have fueled the concept of loneliness. According to Dr. Elena Blanco-Suarez, “loneliness or social isolation… is known to cause changes in the brain, possibly leading to more serious consequences such as depression and other mood disorders”.
She mentions that the mental health crisis “became an epidemic in the last few years” and so with the COVID-19 pandemic, we can surely see how this epidemic can easily become far worse than it already was. Another first-year student in civil law at uOttawa, from CEGEP, said that her days seem the same and that the pandemic hasn’t helped with her mental health at all, saying “the loneliness really gets to me at times”.
Having heard what the above-quoted students said, I realized that we are living in a time where we need each other most. So, I decided to give my fellow civil law students a chance to be heard. I wanted their voice to be just as loud as the platform I was given with the opportunity of writing for Flagrant Délit. According to the survey I put in place to reach out to the civil law students, most said that their mental health had decreased, rating that decrease an 8, 9 or even a 10 out of 10. Some said they are feeling stressed, which is understandable considering the unprecedented circumstances we continue to face.
In addition to the stress, many students mentioned that the workload was more than anticipated, saying teachers have been giving more work than they usually do. One student spoke about their motivation being affected with the overwhelming load of work they have been receiving saying, “there’s definitely more workload (more assignments, group projects, etc.) and some teachers haven’t adapted their teaching and give audio recording of over 3 hours, which makes it super hard to concentrate and be motivated”. Some students have even spoken to older students and arguing the workload is higher than usual. In fact, one student said “pour avoir eu beaucoup de témoignages d’anciens étudiants d’universités du Québec et de l’université d’Ottawa, la charge de travail est, selon moi, plus élevé que ce qu’elle devrait être”. Others expressed their agreement that professors have been expecting high demands saying there is an “overload of work”. However, there are always two sides to an argument and further on, we will come to understand that these opinions are often justifiable but also one-sided.
What’s for sure is that nothing is certain. We don’t know what the future holds. As students, we learn every day, but learning in an environment that keeps us in the same room for most of our days can definitely restrain our capacity to do so. One student says “je trouve ça difficile de ne pas avoir beaucoup de contacts sociaux” (I find it hard to not be able to have much social contact). Other comments such as “déçu” (disappointed), “strange”, “pas une bonne experience” (not a good experience), “I miss on campus classes”, etc. paved their way through multiple answers that I received. The disappointment of students resonated within the answers of many.
In terms of motivation, many brought attention to the difficulties of staying motivated or being able to concentrate: “It’s difficult staying motivated” one student said. A first-year student representative said he himself is having difficulty staying motivated: “It’s difficult managing screen time, connecting with the professors, dealing with technical issues and dealing with motivation”. Another student said they are having difficulties with “motivation” and “the feeling of loneliness even if [they] managed to make some friends”.
When it comes to being isolated most of the time, students mentioned the difficulties it has had on their mental health, in turn affecting their education. One student told me that he was “overwhelmed and isolated. Being home all day in front of a screen by yourself isn’t healthy and isn’t conducive to a [healthy] learning environment”. Once again on the discussion of students’ learning environment, another student says it’s difficult “being able to focus with the distracting home environment”. Reminder, when students are on campus, they are all learning in the same environment, whereas now, every single student is learning in a completely different environment. Some beneficial but others distracting.
Although many students expressed their dislike about online classes, others have expressed what they like about it as well. In fact, one student summed it up pretty well saying “it’s a love hate relationship”. Where some students say, “it’s the worst period of my entire life”, others say “c’est un rêve devenu réalité” (it’s a dream come true). In fact, to explain both sides, when students were asked in the survey how they liked online classes, the most popular answer was “neutral”and the answers remained equal between “I love online classes” and “I hate online classes”. Online school has its drawbacks but also benefits. Most argued that they can adapt their schedule to their own lifestyle and enjoy the comfort of their own home. A big positive that also came up quite often was savings. Most students are saving time on transportation as well as money on rent.
A common suggestion given by many students was the mix of both. If it’s a love-hate relationship with online schooling and always has been a love-hate relationship for in-person classes, why not combine the two together? Or make it an option? One student suggests “je pense qu’il serait intéressant de laisser l’option de suivre les cours en ligne même après la fin de la pandémie. Pour certains élèves l’apprentissage en ligne a eu des bénéfices” ( I think it would be interesting to keep the online option even after the pandemic. For some students online classes have their benefits). This suggestion came up quite often. I for one know that our students are ready to cooperate in making uOttawa’s education the best of the best. It starts with creating a dialogue between students and faculty members
Though through another perspective, professors must be taken into account as well. As mentioned earlier, many students are upset with the quality of education they have been receiving, which has been causing stress about their ability to learn and obtain good grades. However, professors are an important part of the equation that must be understood just as much as we try and understand the pain of students. In fact, some students expressed their empathy towards teachers saying, “I feel like teachers don’t get enough attention…it is just as hard on professors” and “I think that most of our teachers are making a great effort to give great classes regardless of the situation”.
Students find it difficult to interact with their teachers. Zoom meetings aren’t necessarily the ideal way for students to connect with their professors but looking at this through another lens, professors are going from teaching in-person classes to talking to a black screen. It can make professors feel quite lonely. In fact, many of my teachers say it’s difficult for them to stare at nothing. They often say it feels like they are talking to themselves and once again the concept of loneliness arises, a commonality we find in both students and faculty members. One student added “they’re stuck behind a screen and the students won’t even open their cameras. Without any interactions or visual cues from us”.
All in all, the story holds two perspectives. The perspective of a student and the other of a teacher. However, in order for an academic institution to thrive, both sides must work together because “There is more power in unity than division”, as Emanual Cleaver so perfectly puts it.
In seeing what other students said that reinforce this quote, a student emphasizes the voices of many as he says, “je pense surtout qu’il devrait avoir plus d’intéraction entre les profs et les élèves” (I really think there should be more interaction between students and teachers). We all want the same thing, an education that thrives despite the circumstances we face. We want to prove that our system hasn’t failed students or professors, but we must work together. I, for one, believe in uOttawa students and uOttawa professors. I believe in our faculty. I believe we have the power to prove that we are a University, that despite a worldwide crisis, stayed united and fought this fight together.