Crisis shows student services are ‘essential services’

It is week six of the COVID-19 shutdown in Canada and there is no shortage of people for whom to feel compassion: those who have lost loved ones, those who have lost jobs, those who are working in the healthcare sector and others designated ‘essential’ by respective provincial governments.

In higher education it is the same: the crisis has caused considerable strain. Focusing on students, there are those who have returned to a family home unexpectedly. Others are unable to travel and-or are living in isolation. Students with family responsibilities are balancing childcare, teaching school-aged children, elder care and more alongside their own studies. Many students have lost existing and-or future employment opportunities, creating conditions for financial, housing and food insecurity.

While courses and exams have moved online, computer and internet access are an issue for some students. The challenges of remaining focused and staying motivated while surrounded by family members has surfaced for many. Some research-stream students are facing difficulties related to progressing their research, creating questions for when they will graduate.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has called attention to possible mental health-related challenges that students and members of the broader population may be navigating during this time of uncertainty.

Of course, heightened stress levels are not only being encountered by students, but also faculty and staff. For example, many course instructors are facilitating online classes for the first time at what may have felt like a moment’s notice.

In response, universities are developing and introducing new initiatives to support students’ learning and wellbeing and assist professors to learn additional skills. And who is providing this support, enabling professors and students to continue their work? University support staff in areas such as ‘information technology’ and ‘student affairs and services’. In many ways, these individuals are serving as ‘essential personnel’ in the midst of this crisis.

Dual roles

We are privileged to work with students enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Master of Education in Higher Education programme, which attracts a number of students working full time in college and university administration. Winter semester classes ended four weeks ago and we have learned a great deal from students’ descriptions of what they were observing, learning and experiencing through their dual roles as students and support staff.

As the COVID crisis has unfolded, these individuals have taken on a considerable amount of work. For example, those working in housing and food services facilitated unprecedented early move-outs while simultaneously working to safely house and provide food for those who could not return home.

Others were involved in arranging for international students to fly home or for students studying and researching abroad to return to Canada. Their work was described as extending late into the night to communicate with students in multiple time zones.

Those working in registrars’ offices had the monumental task of redesigning the spring course calendar to account for new modes of delivery. One student described that work was being completed on old portable computers that, under regular circumstances, would not be used. They also described creating and adjusting policies to balance fairness with needed compassion for students. The necessity of considering future outcomes of current policy-making was also mentioned.

Regarding information technology, our ‘tech colleagues’ are working around the clock setting up licences for new software and responding to countless emails from professors and students navigating e-learning platforms. Hardware has also presented serious challenges. When aged portable computers – which have become indispensable – break down, technologists are required to be on campus to provide new machines and face-to-face contact.

Support staff are taking on incredible amounts of work, problem-solving, responsibility and accompanying stress. They are working diligently so that those of us who primarily focus on teaching, research and studying are able to move forward.

Essential staff

Like many countries around the world, Canada’s higher education sector is navigating uncertain times. How will the COVID-19 crisis impact enrolment? Will students have the financial means to attend? Will teaching be in-person or online? Will out-of-town and international students travel to campus? To what degree will government contributions to post-secondary institutions be affected? Will universities be forced to cut budgets and personnel?

Should budgetary fears become reality, it will be imperative that post-secondary institutions do not make up the difference by removing support staff acting as our community’s ‘essential services’. These individuals and their contributions are critical to the continuity of our educational mandate, scholarly communities and holistic health.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada. E-mail: Jacqueline Beaulieu is in the higher education programme at OISE, University of Toronto. As an educator, she brings expertise in the areas of student transition and leadership skills development. As a researcher, she pursues topics related to retention and preparedness for participation in global learning communities.