Ontario post-secondary students look forward to in person instruction after a full year of virtual learning

By: Sage Bankasingh

More than one year into the pandemic and post-secondary students in Ontario, Canada have struggled with staying motivated and engaged in their virtual studies over the school year. Luckily, COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario are loosening and students look forward to returning to in person instruction in September.

On March 17th, 2020, Premier Doug Ford declared the very first COVID-19 related state of emergency in Ontario, Canada. This required the majority of the provinces in person services to be suspended, including all schools having to close and switch to alternative online modes of learning. Although the transition has been relatively smooth, how are college and university students in Ontario feeling about their studies?

Most say that the quality of education is just not the same as it was before the pandemic. “Generally speaking, I felt like my quality of learning was significantly diminished, and it was one of the driving forces that made me drop out,” said Keyanna Blackman, 21, who was previously a Criminology student at Ryerson University. She dropped out halfway through the first fully virtual semester. “I felt like my heart was no longer in it as much as I felt when I was attending physical school”.

Keyanna isn’t alone in how she feels. Rita Tsetsekas, 20, is an advertising student at OCAD University who feels as if she’s missing out on a lot of learning experiences. “There’s so much in field work that is important to my curriculum that I no longer have access to,” Rita stated. “For example, one project would have traditionally required me to go to a professional recording studio and work with voice actors, but instead I had to complete it using my own voice and phone”. Virtual learning takes away from post-secondary education, especially the hands-on experience with industry tools that students should be getting with paid, higher education.

The quality of online post-secondary education not being the same as in person learning has led most students to believe that they’ve been overcharged for their studies for the 2020/21 school year. In fact, in a survey that was conducted online, 95% of respondents said they felt they weren’t getting their money’s worth of tuition.

Mental health is another common issue with students, especially during the pandemic. The stay at home order that was introduced on December 26th, 2020 made it illegal to leave your house for non-essential purposes. Having lasted over eight weeks (and reinstated about a month later after it was initially lifted), the citizens of Ontario were in the stay at home order for nearly all of 2021. This has had significant implications on student mental health and wellbeing during the school year. Due to long winter seasons, seasonal depression is a common concern for most – especially students of all ages. This was enhanced during the pandemic, due to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which was one of the most common challenges faced by youth as determined by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Key challenges faced by youth (%) of respondents,
Mental Health Commission of Canada

Despite all of the previous comments and concerns, there has been some good feedback on the virtual learning environment. Omar Taleb, 21, is a Ryerson University student studying Creative Industries who believes that being in an online environment has forced some instructors to be creative and find innovative ways to engage students. “It’s in how they present course material, the value the guest lecturers bring in, and how flexible they are with lessons and deadlines” he started. “It takes more of an effort to meet students halfway and really add value to our education”. A common concern amongst students is how disengaging virtual learning is, but some professors who care for student success have gone the extra mile and have been providing enriched experiences for their students.

Although strict restrictions similar to those of the stay at home order remain, the gradual reopening of the province isn’t completely out of reach. As of yesterday, the stay at home order has officially ended, and on June 14th it’s expected that Ontario will enter its first stage of the reopening plan. This will allow non-essential retail to reopen with limited capacity, alongside outdoor dining with tables of up to four people. Vaccine rollout has also been efficient, with nearly 60% of the population having received their first dose.

Returning to in person classes this upcoming school year is looking optimistic. With vaccines quickly being administered and cases lowering again, most major post-secondary institutions in Toronto such as York University and University of Toronto are planning on reopening their doors for students and faculty in September. After such a long year of social distancing and being in-and-out of lockdown, students are beyond eager to return back to the classroom where they feel most comfortable and engaged with school.