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What we’ve learned from the pandemic

Members of the university community share lessons they’ll carry with them after more than two years of upheaval from COVID-19.


The global disruption caused by SARS‑CoV‑2 challenged all civic institutions, including Canada’s universities, to understand how they can contribute to the well-being of society amid a crisis. Since early 2020, responding to the pandemic has galvanized faculty, administrators and staff to reimagine how they can best serve learners and other members of the university community. Meanwhile, students have faced their own unique challenges, such as adapting to new forms of learning, studying, and off-campus life.

With cautious optimism, University Affairs sought input from our readers by asking them, “What is one change you’ve made as a result of the pandemic that you will carry with you into the upcoming academic year and why?” A collection of responses follows that speaks to what the public health crisis has exposed about our society, the technological tools that are enhancing learning, and what we can achieve when society mobilizes for the greater good.

Reducing carbon emissions

Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor, University of Waterloo

In many ways, COVID-19 served as a threat multiplier in our society. It exposed issues such as fair housing, wealth inequality and discrimination in our health system as major challenges in need of serious work. However, it also demonstrated our collective capacity to mobilize for the greater good on a grand scale. Our climate emergency is our greatest existential threat and extreme weather events continue to multiply. We can and must apply our lessons learned from COVID-19 to take global collective action to deal with this problem. As an academic, I routinely flew multiple times a year to build global connections. As a university president, I need to connect with members of our community and partners here in Canada and across the globe. With air transport a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, each flight is a reminder that travel comes at a cost to our planet. Like many of us over the past few years, I’ve found new ways to connect virtually. In the year ahead, I will limit my own air travel and strategically sequence my in-person and virtual engagements to find an appropriate balance between my responsibility to my university and my planet.

Improving supports for students facing food insecurity

Erin Phillips, chaplain, University of Lethbridge

Trying to address food insecurity in the midst of COVID-19 made us realize that some of the needs we were seeing continued even as restrictions were lifted. We saw that there were students who might spend holidays alone for a variety of reasons – and not just pandemic restrictions – so we have continued to deliver meals to students for special occasions and now include handwritten individualized notes as well. Before the pandemic, we had established little pantries of non-perishable food on campus, which proved very popular for students not wanting to go to the food bank or only needing enough for one meal. We’ve added pantries in new locations this year and are establishing a program for groups to sponsor a pantry.

Championing international students

Ezgi Ozyonum, PhD candidate and instructor, Concordia University

During the pandemic, I have raised the challenges faced by international students in the U.S. and Canada. The pandemic made the already existing problems more apparent and shed light on new issues. I will carry over this championship of social justice into my academic year by examining international students’ perceptions of internationalization. The pandemic reminds us how connected we are as humankind. This connectedness does not merely require co-operation but calls for reconstructing relationships among people and nations. If one part of humanity suffers, all suffer. Therefore, the acknowledgement of the oneness of humankind is a fundamental aspect of education.

Making the best use of in-class time

Julio Mercader Florín, professor, faculty of science, University of Calgary

We have a chance post-COVID to delegate traditional content online through pre-recorded audio lectures. Why not use in-person time for teaching transferable skills, expanding on basic curricula, hosting review sessions, and doing labs?

Improving well-being by prioritizing connection

Deborah Saucier, president and vice-chancellor, Vancouver Island University

At VIU we pride ourselves on our values of understanding, connection, and commitment. The pandemic tested many of us, but the importance of these values became apparent quite quickly. As weeks dragged into months and years, it became clear how essential these values are to leading a good life. Human beings are wired to need meaningful connections with each other. The pandemic forced us to think about how to prioritize and meet this need, and to facilitate the mental health of our students, staff, and faculty. When we could not meet in person, we found new and innovative ways to connect. By doing so, we learned that we could meet the needs of a wider variety of students. Now that we are back to in-person classes and events, we appreciate the ability to connect so much more. However, we are also learning that in reconnecting we have more to learn in order to engage people and help them connect with each other. It is vital to our well-being and helps to promote healthy communities.

Leveraging technology

Stuart Chambers, part-time professor, faculties of arts and social sciences, University of Ottawa

I was unsure whether to use PowerPoint audio files or Zoom for lectures. The students overwhelmingly preferred Zoom lectures because of the direct contact with the professor. However, PowerPoint audio files are useful for two reasons. First, if for some reason a professor cannot attend a class (e.g., illness), prerecorded lectures on PowerPoint ensure students do not miss class lectures. They can hear the professor exactly as if there was a lecture in the class, and all students can stop and start the lecture at any time, so will not miss key points. That is helpful for those with learning disabilities. Second, if used in class, those same PowerPoint slides become important visual tools that add quality to the lectures, aid in note-taking, and allow links to YouTube and other sources to enhance the presentation.

Treating each other with kindness

Judy Bornais, executive director, office of experiential learning, University of Windsor

One change: focusing on relationships and advocating for empathy, compassion, and kindness in all of the policies, procedures, grading and interactions with others. Why? Because I think that relationships matter and that as an academic, students will remember the faculty and administrators who cared about their success and helped them on their academic journey. As a nurse, faculty member and administrator, I think we can create a better world when we are empathetic, compassionate and kind to those around us. Until we walk in someone else’s shoes we have no idea what burdens they carry, but we can help make their journey a little easier by exercising these qualities.

Reaching students off campus

Samantha Goldberg, manager (wellness), student wellness hub, McGill University

One big change that the local wellness advisor (LWA) team made during the pandemic was that we began to offer virtual student appointments and programming. The idea had been brewing before the pandemic, but after the onset of COVID-19 we needed to figure out how to get there much more quickly than we ever thought possible. Allowing students to connect with our LWAs virtually opened access for students that may not have sought out services on campus. This includes students who don’t find themselves on campus often (like students who are participating in off-site internships or who are in the thesis-writing portion of their degree), students for whom coming to an in-person event feels like too big a leap, and students who just prefer to meet from the comfort of their home. For the upcoming academic year, we will continue to offer a hybrid model – a mix of virtual and in-person programming – that offers greater choice for students looking to access wellness services.

Virtually educating learners of all levels

David Anderson, dean and professor, faculty of medicine, Dalhousie University

Some of the systems and processes that would have taken years to develop under normal circumstances happened overnight, and many of them worked out very well. There has been tremendous innovation around what can be done, both at an educational and social level, to make things work. People have really embraced the technology and the opportunity it provides. There have also been transformational changes to the way we do things now, and we won’t be going back to how we did it before. The working-from-home paradigm has been a positive development and something we can learn from moving forward. There was an almost instant switch to using virtual formats for delivering educational opportunities. This was throughout our educational programs, from undergraduate medical education and graduate studies to continuing professional development. There are pros and cons with this approach, and we truly learned to embrace the long-term value of providing continuing professional development virtually. It allows physicians around the Maritime provinces to receive education from their homes or offices, without having to travel distances and incur the expense and disruption of having to travel. There are certainly advantages to offering some virtual educational activities for all levels of learners, and the pandemic has also given us a greater appreciation for the value of face-to-face interaction and education.

Hannah Liddle
Hannah Liddle is the digital journalist for University Affairs.
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