Searching for balance: Pandemic changes leave students, faculty longing for structure
Thomas Solem, director of UND’s counseling center, said the center is seeing an increase in “distress levels of students across the board.”
When she’s not in the virtual classroom, Kailee Leingang spends her days on the phone talking to people who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
She’s been yelled at and has been told the virus isn’t real. She’s broken the news to people that they’ve tested positive. She has cried with families who have lost loved ones, read obituaries and sent flowers to families.
She’s shared her cell phone number with people and told them to reach out if they have any questions, leading to constant calls, texts and emails.
Leingang is a contact tracer for the state of North Dakota, but she’s still a senior nursing student at UND.
Her story has been shared thousands of times, thanks to a Washington Post column last month , but while Leingang’s story may differ slightly from the thousands of other students at UND, she shares a common problem: finding balance.
“I am not good at that,” she said. “That is something I continue to struggle with.”
The pandemic is taking its toll on students, faculty and staff in various forms. Many students are trying to balance their ever-changing learning environment with work and home life, while doing the best they can to mitigate risk of spreading COVID-19. That often means interacting with fewer people and spending more time at home than they would during a typical semester. But that isolation can have a deep impact on students' mental health.
Thomas Solem, director of UND’s counseling center, said the center is seeing an increase in “distress levels of students across the board.” Though the issues differ from person to person, Solem said stress levels are increased for most students now.
“I think, generally, just getting through the day is harder for many right now, while they're trying to adapt it to a new normal and hold up success at the same time,” he said.
Earlier this semester, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors surveyed 144 institutions, comparing the first four weeks of this semester with fall 2019. While there was a reported 29% decrease in the number of students seeking counseling services this fall compared to last year, the survey also revealed increases in student anxiety, loneliness and other issues.
More than half of the institutions reported an increase in student anxiety, 81% of institutions reported an increase in student loneliness and 40% reported an increase in student depression. The survey also found that 23% of students sought counseling for reasons relating to the pandemic.
While the center is still seeing students one-on-one, Solem said more students are utilizing the center’s group meetings and workshops. The events vary in subject matter, including mindfulness and managing stress, as well as groups centered around giving a voice to students of color and helping those dealing with addiction.
“It allows them to find support with other peers, and then validates that they're not the only ones looking for support,” he said.
Students want to and need to connect with one another, Solem said, but the pandemic has made that more difficult as typical avenues for meeting are gone because of social distancing and smaller group sizes.
The counseling center is free for students to use.
But when it comes to school, there’s countless projects and research work to get done, too, Leingang said.
Leingang, like many of her fellow students, has most of her classes online this semester, which can be challenging. Learning at home can be difficult, especially with difficult content. A professor might rush through a topic or take too long on another, but it’s difficult to communicate that when students aren’t in a classroom, Leingang said.
“It's kind of a tough situation, I think, all around,” she said.
She appreciates the days at work when she can participate in team-building activities from home to relax for a little bit. As a technical employee of the state health department, her contact tracing team has access to an employee assistance program with free therapy available if they wish to use it, she said.
UND Student Body President Matthew Ternus said student leaders, especially those in the residence halls, are doing the best they can to create COVID-safe events to help students stay connected, such as virtual game nights. Greek chapters are doing virtual Zoom events or finding events to do while wearing masks and social distancing.
But the changes aren’t affecting all students in the same way, Ternus noted.
“There's a range,” he said. “You've got clusters of students who are doing really well and have adapted really well. And you have clusters of students who are still trying to find their footing in COVID-era college.”
Students are also trying to deal with the general stressors of the virus and its effects on their day-to-day lives, whether that means having their jobs impacted or worrying about what the case counts look like on a day-to-day basis, Ternus said.
Ternus said student government is looking for ways to promote positivity where it can.
“Students are going through a lot right now and having, you know, consistent messaging, consistent opportunities, to hear about ways to cope with stress and to deal with stressors is important," he said.
Faculty and staff
But the stressors in higher education stretch far beyond students. Faculty and staff are also feeling the mental weight of the pandemic.
Liz Legerski, chair of the University Senate, said faculty spent the semester adjusting to the hybrid and online learning models, while also trying to help students who may have been out of class because they were sick or in quarantine. Additionally, faculty have families they’re trying to keep up with and help at home. With a looming legislative session that could bring budget reductions, Legerski said faculty are worried about a number of issues.
“I worry about burnout among our faculty,” Legerski told the Herald at the end of October. By then, faculty were already asked to consider their spring semester plans and to prepare for more potential hybrid teaching in the spring.
All of that is on top of having limited peer interaction and not being able to participate in community building, she said. Through an employee assistance program, UND employees have access to mental health resources through The Village.
In October, Legerski said faculty were already making adjustments to how they delivered their courses, some choosing to move their courses online due to spikes in cases related to campus or for other reasons. Students were encouraged to either stay in Grand Forks or stay home if they were able to after the Thanksgiving break to reduce virus spread.
Now, around 67% of UND’s classes are being delivered through face-to-face or hybrid methods, while about 33% are being delivered online only, according to a UND dashboard.
“It's been hard to meet everybody's needs, but we're trying the best we can. The thing I think I'm the most proud of is the work on the part of faculty to really make this a quality online experience -- much, much better than what happened in the spring,” interim UND Provost Debbie Storrs said earlier this week.
UND President Andrew Armacost said the university tries to encourage staff and faculty to take time off when they can and find interactions with their peers.
“We know that this pandemic is going to ebb and flow,” he said in an October interview with the Herald. “We really need to take advantage of the downtimes to react and recover and to make sure that people are doing well.”
He said employees are encouraged to use resources like the employee assistance program.
UND’s COVID-19 case loads have ebbed and flowed this semester. The campus saw an initial spike of around 330 active cases in the first few days of the semester; those cases later dipped in September but then rose again in October. As of Thursday, Dec. 10, UND had 49 active, self-reported positive cases of COVID-19 with 62 individuals in isolation or quarantine.
What happens next?
As the semester comes to a close, a question remains: What happens next?
Leingang will graduate in May, but what the world may look like in seven months is unknown. The pandemic has already affected her fiance’s aviation industry, which means they’ll be staying around Grand Forks for another year while he works with UND. That leaves Leingang trying to find a job with benefits; whether hospitals will be hiring in the summer remains to be seen.
“There's no rulebook on how to navigate your life after graduation generally, but now we're throwing in a pandemic,” Leingang said. “What's going to happen? How bad is it going to get? How many people are going to die?”
And Leingang wonders what the stresses of the pandemic will do to people’s mental health.
“It’s traumatic,” she said. “How traumatized are people going to be after this? They're having their families and their friends and co-workers and all these people are dying. And even if they’re not dying and they're hospitalized, they're in there alone, you can't go visit them. How traumatizing is that?”