Post-secondary students have faced academic disruptions, job losses and increasing financial stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new Statistics Canada survey has revealed. 

While the online survey, conducted between April 19 and May 1, saw 100,000 post-secondary students respond, the data doesn’t represent Canada’s post-secondary student population as a whole because probability-based sampling was not used. But the results provide an interesting snapshot into students’ experiences, according to Tamara Knighton, a chief with the Canadian Centre of Education Statistics within StatCan.

“I think that the results really underscore the impact that the pandemic is having on post-secondary students,” she said. “Whether it be in their academic life, their labour market situation or their financial situation.”

 

Academic disruptions

COVID-19 forced the closure of post-secondary institutions across the country and 92 per cent of survey participants saw some or all of their classes moved online. 

This shift to online learning meant most students were able to complete their classes, but often not in the way they expected. 

Roshni Pandey, a third-year Mount Royal University business student, said while she was able to complete her classes, she missed out on the chance to present final projects at events that were also meant to be major networking opportunities. 

“Our projects had to change on very short notice. So, it was just a lot of chaos,” she said. 

That chaos affected Pandey’s ability to finish the semester.

“[It] definitely affected my motivation. I think I was really looking forward to those specific events, it was kind of like the highlight of the semester… and we didn’t get to do any of that,” she said. “It just felt like a really big let down.” 

While some struggled with the transition to online learning, others grew accustomed to their new circumstances. 

Julia Harrison, a fourth-year psychology student at MRU, said despite seeing a drop in her grades when schools first made the transition, she finished off the semester strong and even opted to enrol in spring and summer courses — all of which will be taking place online.

Harrison came to enjoy the opportunity to work at her own pace and in ways that work best for her. 

“While it is a lonely way to learn and I miss human connection, I actually love taking online courses,” she said. 

 

Job losses and financial impacts 

While students have varying feelings about the transition to online learning, there is very little difference in how the pandemic has affected their work lives as many were laid off from their jobs. 

According to StatCan, 28 per cent of the students surveyed had a job at the beginning of March that they were planning to continue working when the semester came to an end. Two months later 55 per cent of those students had been temporarily laid off from or lost those jobs entirely. 

Pandey and Harrison were each laid off from the part-time jobs they held while going to school, while Maya Griscowsky, a third-year public relations student at MRU, was laid off from her two jobs. 

“I work at the worst places for this,” she said. “I work in a movie theatre and a gym. So, they were the first places to close and they’ll be the last places to open.” 

Despite 70 per cent of students surveyed by StatCan expressing that they were very or extremely concerned about how those job losses and the pandemic will financially impact them, Pandey, Harrison and Griscowsky do not yet share those concerns in part because they’ve been supported by emergency funding.

Both Pandey and Griscowsky were eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, while Harrison is eligible for the Canada Emergency Student Benefit. 

But, Pandey says, financial support from the government isn’t the only reason she doesn’t feel concern about her finances. Instead, it mostly has to do with the fact that she’s no longer paying for things like daycare, transportation and impulse purchases she makes while on campus, such as buying a cup of coffee. 

“Overall, my expenses have gone down quite a bit,” she said. 

 

Emotional toll

While StatCan doesn’t cover the effect the pandemic has had on student mental health, both Pandey and Griscowsky mentioned struggling with being less busy now that most of their commitments have disappeared, while Harrison has, at times, found herself struggling to fill the free time she does have. 

“I’m just exhausted, honestly,” she said. “You can only organize so many closets and deep clean so many things in the house in between classes before [you begin] feeling trapped.”