University students are facing unprecedented mental health challenges caused by the pandemic, according to the chairperson for the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Federation of Students.
The organization represents student unions at NSCAD, University of King's College, Mount Saint Vincent University, Université Sainte-Anne, Cape Breton University and the Dalhousie Association of Graduate Students.
Joanna Clark told CBC's Information Morning the student organization has shifted its focus to providing mental health support for students trying to cope with pandemic restrictions.
Physical distancing rules have affected the sense of community that would have been the norm on campus prior to COVID-19, according to Clark.
She said the lack of community is even more difficult for students who experienced university life prior to the pandemic.
"Because they had this idea of like what it means to be a university student," she said. "You're able to find that community, you're able to find that group, you're able to have this service on campus. And so not being able to access that now is definitely a huge struggle."
Clark said the biggest complaint her organization has heard from students is that workloads have increased and deadlines are more demanding, even as students have less access to campus resources.
She called on universities to not raise tuition fees, given that students are already feeling "kind of cheated" by the online experience.
"One thing to think about going forward is what are we charging for and ensuring that it's an affordable education at the very least, if not free," Clark said.
She fears that the current experience will turn people away from education at a time when researchers and health-care workers are most needed.
Her organization is advocating for compassionate grading or a pass/fail grade to alleviate the stress on students.
"Having that would kind of alleviate some of the burden and help with some of that stress on your own mental health," she said.
Compassionate grading has been instituted in other jurisdictions. The University of Manitoba allows students to drop a grade from their grade point average and Laurentian University in Ontario is allowing students to choose a pass or fail designation instead of a specific grade.
International students need support
The plight of international students enrolled at Nova Scotia universities is also a concern for Clark.
She said they already faced higher tuition fees and are now being made to pay to quarantine at a hotel when they enter the province.
Noting that the government "preaches the importance and the value" of having international students attend provincial institutions, Clark said they should be offered some form of financial support.
"So we are hoping to see that change, knowing that it really has to do with the accessibility of their education and their experience," she said.
Clark also addressed accusations that the university population is responsible for some of the COVID outbreaks in the province.
She called for an end to blaming students who test positive and said many students have to make an income by working in high exposure-risk settings.
"We're not blaming any other group," she said. "At the end of the day, students often are people who are taking on front-line work ... working in grocery stores or retail stores or restaurants, things like that."
Clark said her organization will be teaming up with colleagues in Newfoundland to provide two informational workshops a month that will serve schools in Atlantic Canada. They hope to have things like yoga classes, knitting and movie watching, "something that's more like being part of a community."
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