We can’t let our sense of community be another casualty of COVID-19

Editorials Opinions

For new and returning students, avoiding social isolation during the pandemic requires creative solutions

stock image of online university
Stock photo via Pixabay.

For many students, the start of the school year is a welcoming return to the campus community. Bands play on top of the SUB, chaos reigns in the bookstore, and friends get the opportunity to catch up over drinks on the Fel’s patio or at tables in Biblio.

For first-year students, the start of the semester is often seen as a critical time to dive into campus life and find new friendships at clubs day, in the quad, or in new classes. 

But this year, most students logged on to their computers, in their bedrooms, and joined a Zoom lecture where the greatest sense of community was a few friendly faces hovering on the screen in grainy webcam quality. There are no pre-class chats with whomever you sat next to, and no friends to catch up with over lunch. Just the glare of screens and hum of electronics.

This new, more isolating environment will have consequences for both new and returning students. Just as we have adapted our lives in numerous ways in response to COVID-19, we must also adapt our ways of finding, and keeping, community.

Decreased social interaction has serious consequences. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 38 per cent of Canadians say their mental health has declined due to COVID-19. Decreased social interaction can also affect physical health: studies have found that interaction can protect against memory decline and slow age-related declines in lung health.

Beyond its health impacts, the loss of the community and social interaction that comes from being physically on campus and in class makes it harder to form new friendships and keep those casual connections from withering into an Instagram handle that you don’t recognize on your feed.

Now, investing in a new friendship feels exhausting when you can barely keep in touch with the friends you already have. There are many friendships that won’t last, simply because our social circles have to be small right now. Every interaction has to be intentional, and every new connection has higher stakes. The comforting third spaces of the library, the hallways of your classrooms, and your favourite independently-owned coffee shops have vanished into the ether.

During our (digital) editorial meeting, our conversations kept circling around this unnamed sense of grief, where we all felt an nostalgia for the campus community the pandemic took from us. Online classes have forced us to say goodbye to aspects of the campus community that we wouldn’t have known we’d miss without losing them. 

So in that spirit: goodbye to the possibility of watching a slackliner faceplant in the quad. Adios to the long-gone Gordon Head parties that you’d attend in hopes of seeing your lecture crush (how will we even have those now?). So long are the days of free pizza and outfit inspo any which way you look. ‘Til next time, duck couple in the quad. 

Though they might not be finding themselves nostalgic for campus ducks, incoming students — many of whom are leaving home for the first time — face additional challenges. For many, the lack of closure to their years of high school and the sudden switch into a new and confusing way of learning will have unprecedented effects on their socialization and mental health.

It’s tough to find the balance between nurturing the essential connections we need to stay sane in school and the safety of ourselves and others. There are very real costs to social isolation. Despite the challenges, we need to find new ways to foster and sustain community.

Though online may not feel like the best medium to meet and interact with others, there are some platforms to be used that can foster some sort of connection. Whether it is watching movies together, playing games/virtual board games, or simply chatting, there are ways to build genuine relationships online that can be continued in-person. 

Just like with COVID-19, there’s no magic pill that can turn this situation around. It’ll take an empathetic and sustained approach from both ourselves and others to get through one of the weirdest school years yet.