COVID-19: How are your graduate students?

COVID-19 impacts everyone: individuals, workers, families – people of all ages and at all stages of life. Some people may feel more negatively affected than others. In previous Oregon and the Workplace posts  we have addressed the impact of the novel coronavirus on workers, including those who have been temporarily or permanently furloughed, along with others working in construction and agriculture. We have also shared tips and strategies for supervisors to support workers during this difficult time.

Today, we turn our attention to graduate students. I’ve spent some time during the past few weeks listening to current graduate students in an attempt to learn how well our academic programs are doing to address their needs during this scary and challenging time.

“I became really sick with COVID-19, and instead of checking in on me, my professor reached out to inform me I hadn’t completed all of the weekly assignments, and to do it ASAP.” (Anonymous.)

While students of all ages are being impacted by this disruption of education as they knew it, many graduate students are in an even more precarious position. We tend to talk Total Worker Health® from an employee or employer perspective, and it makes sense that we extend our considerations to graduate student populations: many currently (or are soon to) hold part time or full time jobs, or are employed through their university or hospital through stipends and fellowships. These students make up our workplaces, families and communities, and many have families of their own.

In this fairly brief purview of this topic, so much comes down to a repeated theme: communication. One of the best tips I found online for how to provide support as an advisor or mentor is very simple, “Ask them. Then, after an appropriate time, ask them again. Because this situation is moving so fast, you might have to ask fairly often.” (From: Chronicle of Higher Education.) This blog expands on that simple piece of advice with the tips listed below.

In generating these tips, we acknowledge how many unknowns and fears exist among faculty members and mentors supporting these students: financial, programmatic, fairness, and sustainability top the list. It will be difficult to assist graduate students if faculty and mentors feel similarly unsupported.

Tips for Faculty and Department Members and Leaders

  1. Increase communication and transparency

    Students, just like many other people, express anxiety especially related to the uncertainly of their future. Increasing both communication, and in doing so, transparency, can build or rebuild trust that some students may be losing with changes that are being implemented.

    1. A weekly email including relevant details, even if not everything has been worked out. Items to address may be contingency planning, tuition/finances, internship and rotation updates for those in practical education, updates in staff or faculty changes. Even if there are no new updates, a routine email schedule is important.
    2. Receiving the weekly email or additional notification at least 24 hours prior to scheduled faculty meetings if students are involved, to allow time for students to collect their thoughts and avoid redundancy when asking questions during these meetings.
    3. Increase time or allow time for students to share feedback during drop-in communication meetings.
  2. Be open and forthright about changes in tuition plans, even if things are fully yet known

    Remember that students live on shoestring budgets, most have loan commitments, and when graduation is delayed it has huge impacts on the student, and potentially, family members. Many will need to look for second jobs, get additional assistance with financial planning and childcare, and so forth. Be aware that lost tuition that is not somehow repaid by either instructional time later or compensation will be very upsetting and feel unfair to most students. Most graduate students already harbor large loan debt, and changes that affect this debt without options to repay are frightening and depressing.
  3. Be flexibleThere may be opportunities to create changes or updates to previously established plans that may reduce stress levels felt by students. While some requirements or expectations may not be able to be altered or changed, be open to opportunities that may allow students to substitute or change a task, assignment, or exam in lieu of other opportunities.
  4. Bring students in for shared contingency planningEven if the pieces they are allowed to weigh in on are small, include your students in the communications. They are interested in what is being planned and happening, even if some details are still unknown. It is much easier to jump to scary conclusions the more we feel we are being left in the dark. Make it clear what a student should do if found to be sick with COVID-19, including if on-the-job or in rotation, and what resources may be available. Discuss the need for extending deadlines, or restructuring projects and exams. Openly discuss what delays mean for students required to sit for national exams, and act as an advocate for your students as you are able.
  5. Know that students are interconnected with othersStudents may have friends and acquaintances working on the same degree at a different program, and may compare experiences, and what other institutions are doing. No decisions are easy to make at this point, regarding whether to allow tele-work to satisfy previously in-person requirements, to reduce practical experience hours, or to delay graduation. Some programs are looking at previously allowed electives as opportunities for students to design their own course specific to unique interests. Virtual learning may have advantages and opportunities, depending on the needs of the program and students, and yet can’t fulfill all of the learning needs: openly discussing decisions related to this will be useful. However, again, being transparent about why decisions are being considered or made will allow students to feel they have more control or understanding in things that are directly impacting them.
  6. Provide mental health supportShare available resources and support to all students. Look for opportunities beyond those offered within a standard employee assistance program. Student support groups and webinars specific to certain issues will be appreciated by some students. Social isolation can lead to further worries and anxieties.
  7. Acknowledge griefStudents are feeling grief at the loss of significant events like graduation and commencement. Others may have had celebratory or supportive plans and events that are now cancelled. Others may have had classes, conferences and practicums that have changed. Understand that the replacement of traditionally held face-to-face events and experiences by virtual may be frustrating and feel like a significant loss.

We appreciate the difficulties faced by all members of our communities, including our student populations. Thank you to the students who have shared their insights incorporated within this blog, and we’d love to hear other ideas if you have some to share.