When the University of Lethbridge announced the shutdown of campuses in early 2020, professors and students were anxious, left with only days to figure out how to carry on with courses in an online format.
This fall, many colleges and universities have decided to have fully in-person courses.
The University of Lethbridge faculty say they are struggling to bring students back to campus and the engagement is low.
"We were exhausted, some of us are still exhausted," chemistry instructor Susan Findlay said.
She said faculty members were working more than 80 hours a week at times.
"I temporarily lost my vision for a few hours because of how much screen time I had had. That was really wicked scary."
Findlay had her first migraine during online teaching. She says she is still recovering from health implications of a burnout.
Findlay said students coming in for labs lack practical skills and many lack confidence.
Business instructor Michael Madore said making the switch from online instruction to in-person is proving difficult.
"In online classes, some of them [students] told me they enjoyed it because they can roll into their beds five minutes into the class," he said.
Madore said the university has accommodations for students in need, but it's hard to engage other students and promote experiential learning.
Some students struggled in isolation. Some are returning with newly developed social anxiety.
I felt like I had forgotten how to socialize. - Ayomide Adejumo, student
"My grades were better than being in-person, because I studied more and the pressure wasn't too much — you study at your own pace," said fifth-year business student Ayomide Adejumo.
She said returning in-person was stressful.
"We were afraid [because of COVID-19] people were still wearing masks — we didn't know who was who. And I felt like I had forgotten how to socialize."
Second-year psychology student Chayce Ryan Currie said being in-person has enhanced his learning experience.
"It's being closer to your professors, being able to have access to them, and you can ask more questions. Then there is the social aspect of being around other students."
He says the only difficulty he is facing is commuting, but he prefers to access resources and support on campus.
Students with financial difficulties are hardest hit
Along with fear of a deadly virus and isolation came rising inflation.
"The big challenge is for your less traditional students, students who are raising children, students who are supporting other family members, students who are supporting themselves. That is where the challenges come in, and I worry that the accessibility gap is increasing," Findlay said.
She said instructors can help them academically, but beyond that, the rising social stressors are making it difficult for students to show up on campus.
Fourth-year science student Angie Nikoleychuk says there has been a lack of communication since COVID began, which has led to a chaotic transition.
"It really added to the stress and havoc of everything, on top of rising tuition cost, rising student loan cost, cost of living.… It was a lot of disruption and juggling on top of the basics," she said.
She is concerned that budget cuts have added "mistrust and tension" between faculty and student aides."
"If you're playing catchup, how are you supposed to do volunteer work?" Nikoleychuk said.
Madore said he's heard complaints of too much stress.
"A few students have raised concern that they are dealing with additional stressors that they haven't dealt with previously," he said.
"There are many things we have to do in a hybrid model now. We have learned from the pandemic that we can adjust the way we do things," said Kathleen Massey, associate vice-president for students at the University of Lethbridge.
'Flip the course'
While professors taught each other new technology, and methods to sustain courses online, in many cases, they also had to create video lessons.
Findlay is now using that material to "flip the course."
Traditionally, students would attend a lab, hear instructions and then experiment.
Now, Findlay sends video lessons and online material created during the campus closure before a lab class. Students now start a class with experiments, and ask questions and engage during the session.
She said if not for the pandemic, she would not have taken the extra time to create online lessons, which now help students who can't attend in-person classes.
Madore's course also requires students to interact with businesses, do audits and do consultancy practice.
They say such practical assignments have encouraged participation and experiential learning.
The student support group has been hosting hybrid programs and events to address issues related to the latest transition.
With a high level of uncertainty, burnout, inflation and budget cuts, many are concerned that existing supports are just not enough.