Addressing the Challenges of COVID-19 on Higher Education Campuses in the U.S. and Canada: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum

Addressing the Challenges of COVID-19 on Higher Education Campuses in the U.S. and Canada Lead image: Photo of university staff checking the temperature of a student [1]

International students have faced unprecedented challenges in 2020 stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos it has unleashed on higher education systems in the United States and Canada. In the U.S., higher education institutions (HEIs) have struggled in the wake of stringent, government-enforced restrictions on international student mobility, as well as increased outbreaks of the virus on campus and in the community. Research [2] indicates that the reopening of U.S. college campuses resulted in an estimated 3,200 new COVID-19 cases a day during the first two weeks of the fall semester.

Although Canada has faced similar problems, the Canadian government has, on the whole, taken a more coherent approach to both the pandemic and the regulation of international student mobility. On October 20, Canada opened its borders to international students attending a designated learning institution (DLI) with a COVID-19 readiness plan in place [3], a significant move in a country where international students make up 15 percent of total university enrollment. The list of approved DLIs includes post-secondary institutions in nearly all of Canada’s provinces and territories.

Our latest Twitter chat, held just before the U.S. presidential election, explored not only the challenges U.S. and Canadian HEIs face in this uncertain time, but also those of international students—from physical and mental health concerns to social and financial anxieties. The discussion also examined some of the successful actions universities have taken to address those challenges. Now that this turbulent year is nearing its end, a review of past difficulties and effective solutions can help institutions plan for a new, and hopefully brighter, year.

The U.S. has failed to mount a comprehensive, nationwide response to COVID-19. Likewise, U.S. HEIs have taken an uncoordinated, scattershot approach to managing the virus, leaving many international students confused and concerned for their physical health.

Instead of implementing a coherent nationwide plan to control COVID-19, the U.S. government has left the management of this public health crisis up to individual states. This approach has proved ineffective and dangerous, its failure recognized around the world. A Pew Research Center poll [4] of individuals in 13 countries found that a median of just 15 percent felt that the U.S. had done a good job dealing with the outbreak.

Likewise, U.S. colleges and universities were on their own when it came to determining when and how to bring students back to campus. Most schools [5] relied on their own experts when deciding the best approaches for the fall semester. Some offered classes entirely online; others, a hybrid model; still others brought all their students back in person and tested them regularly. This multi-pronged approach has been a kind of huge public health experiment. Unlike in other countries experiencing a surge in cases, many four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. brought students back to their campus in some form this fall [5].

For international students, who are struggling with so much this semester, concerns for their physical health and safety are paramount. Knowing that schools have a COVID-19 plan in place eases at least some of that uncertainty.

Widespread low- or no-cost COVID-19 testing has been the most effective strategy employed by HEIs to protect students during the fall semester. Other measures, such as community-led outreach and AI-powered chatbots, have helped students on both the physical health and mental health fronts.

Aside from regular testing, there are many measures HEIs can take to lower coronavirus infection rates in the student population. Twitter chat participants agreed that HEIs also need to provide clear, direct communication and support to students to keep them safe.

Other effective actions include daily symptom surveys and chatbot monitoring to inform students of safety protocols and on-campus health resources. For example, Arizona State University has piloted an AI-powered chatbot to keep students apprised of the latest campus news, including COVID-19 updates, to much success.

Community-led efforts to connect international students not only with other students, but also with faculty and administrators, have also been successful. For example, Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University has enlisted volunteers to call and check in on every single international student. If students don’t answer their phones, they receive an email instead. Other schools in Canada and the U.S. have organized virtual wellness sessions and outdoor, socially distanced fitness classes to help nurture a sense of community during the pandemic.

In Canada, international students are required to complete a 14-day quarantine period upon reaching their destination. Universities are adopting other public health measures as well, such as employing safety ambassadors—students whose job it is to patrol the campus and enforce COVID-19 protective protocols, including social distancing and mask wearing.

The outlook for the 2021 spring semester will largely depend on government rules and regulations, as well as on the effectiveness of COVID-19 containment efforts.

As both the U.S. and Canada head into winter, infection rates appear poised to surge, bringing a specter of uncertainty to the spring 2021 semester.

However, unlike in the U.S., where on-campus outbreaks have, at times, spilled over into the surrounding community, Canada’s stricter pandemic response has resulted in much lower infection rates and little evidence of student-driven community spread. In Canada, the outlook for the upcoming semester is dependent upon infection rates, government guidelines, and whether Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) expands its list of approved DLIs.

In early November, the Canadian government announced an ambitious immigration plan for 2021 to 2023. Higher education institutions welcomed the plan [30], praising the “positive signal” it sends to international students. They also expect international students who apply for permanent residency after graduation to play an important role in helping the country reach its immigration targets.

At some institutions, the upcoming spring semester will look a lot like the fall. At New York University, administrators expect that strategies in place right now, such as a combination of hybrid and remote classes, limited faculty on campus, frequent testing and screening, and the strict enforcement of public health measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, will continue in the spring.

Some Twitter chat participants highlighted the need to learn from the mistakes made since the spring 2020 semester. Others noted that much would hinge on the results of the U.S. presidential election.

Measures taken to protect students from COVID-19 are having unintended consequences, increasing students’ loneliness and sense of isolation, and adversely affecting their mental health.

Social isolation and loneliness have fueled the silent mental health crises of depression and anxiety on campus. For international students, social isolation is even harder—they have smaller on-site social networks and are far away from family support. The mental health crisis this fall has been exacerbated by the cancellation of many in-person orientation events and other on-campus activities. Not only do these events typically help students connect with and meet others, they also support students’ mental health during an important transition in their lives.

Unfamiliar cultural and health institutions and practices compound mental health challenges. To face these obstacles, international students must navigate a new health care system, often in a second language. They may also have to deal with the cultural stigma of seeking mental health care services.

International students are a uniquely vulnerable population from a mental health perspective.

The American College Health Association [43] has gone so far as to single out international students as a particularly vulnerable population from a mental health perspective. They are less likely to seek counseling than their U.S. counterparts, and they have a lot more to worry about, including rapidly changing student visa policies, and an increase in racist and xenophobic sentiment in the U.S. [44] Moreover, international students are unfamiliar with the U.S. or Canadian health care system, making them more likely to avoid seeking help, even when they need it.

On top of these concerns, international students face unique financial anxieties stemming from a lack of financial support from HEIs and a dearth of employment opportunities both before and after graduation. Because of visa regulations in the U.S., most currently enrolled international students are limited to working on-campus jobs [44], which have decreased sharply in number as a result of the pandemic. These financial concerns are further fueling international student anxiety and mental health troubles.

Despite 2020 being a challenging year for international students, U.S. and Canadian HEIs have shown their support by providing direct and focused engagement to their students. Knowing that they are seen and cared for is essential to international students’ well-being and mental health. Creating these structures of support now will help HEIs continue to assist international students through future crises, even beyond the pandemic.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).