Student Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Exploratory Survey of Park University Students

Introduction

In January 2019, a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) outbreak started in Wuhan, China, and quickly spread around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020 and announced it as the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11, 2020 (World Health Organization, 2020a). According to WHO’s Situation Report 103, the global total number of COVID-19-positive cases reached 3,267,184 by May 2, 2020, with 229,971 reported deaths (World Health Organization, 2020b). A global health and economic threat, COVID-19 has brought extraordinary disruption to higher education, forcing campus closures and rapid transition to remote teaching. Many faculty and students had to learn on-the-fly how to use novel technologies. It has become, therefore, imperative to examine how students experienced this transition.


A growing body of empirical research is emerging from Asia, Australia, and Europe, perhaps because the COVID-19 outbreak came there first. In China, long-term isolation policy in response to COVID-19 had a complex influence on the mental health of college students (N=992), specifically on the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypochondria, depression, and neurasthenia (Chen, Sun, Fend, 2020). A study with two online surveys of college students (N=555) before and after their COVID-19 confinement in China found factors such as having inadequate supplies of hand sanitizers and a higher year of study to be predictors of increased anxiety and depression (Li, Cao, Leung, & Mak, 2020). Zhang, Zhang, Ma, & Di (2020) – in several longitudinal surveys of college students in China (N=66) to determine the dose-response relationships between the COVID-19 death count, physical activity, and negative emotions – found the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak had an indirect effect on negative emotions by affecting sleep quality.

In Australia, isolation was found to be related to a higher caloric diet intake in female students and a decrease in physical activity in both sexes among undergraduate students (N=509) (Gallo, Gallo, Young, Moritz, & Akison, 2020). In Italy, the lockdown caused a significant decrease in physical activity among undergraduate students (N=384) (Galle, Sabella, Da Molin, et al., 2020). In Ukraine, a survey of undergraduate students and lecturers (N=2,789) found numerous psychological issues in students related to lack of live communication, inabil9

ity to retake missed practical classes, increase in tasks, lack of time to complete tasks, obligations to carry out family, limited access to computers, and parents transferred to remote work (Prokopenko & Berezhna, 2020).

Methods

This current survey was designed to investigate Park University student experiences relative to personal life and educational factors during transition to COVID-19 lockdown. Park University is a private, nonprofit, liberal arts institution with more than 16,000 students, 77 degree programs, 31 certificates, and 41 campus centers in the United States (Park University, 2020). Thus, student experiences will broadly reflect university student experiences related to the COVID-19 epidemic generally, and can serve as reference to guide institutions of higher education in planning educational interventions to support the students.

Undergraduate and graduate students taking classes in the Spring term at Park University were invited via email to participate in an online Campus Labs survey during the lockdown period (April 23 – May 11, 2020). Respondents were informed that it was not mandatory to respond to all questions and that the responses will be kept confidential.

Results

Demographics and Background

A total of 566 valid responses were received by the end of May 11, 2020. The modal age range was 18-22 (39%, n=196); age categories ranged from under 18 years (0.2%, n=1) to over 57 years (1%, n=6). The majority were female (n=339/510), and respondents reflected a range in status: 14% freshmen, 15% sophomores, 24% juniors, 28% seniors, and 19% graduate students (n=72, 75, 120, 145, and 99 respectively, out of 511).

Effect of COVID-19 Lockdown on Students’ Personal Life

When asked how much stress the students are feeling about the potential consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, 46% felt “a great deal;” 40% felt “some” stress; and 14% responded “little or none” (n= 236, 208, and 73 respectively, out of 517). Eighty-four percent reported they did not become ill as a result of the coronavirus, 2% responded that they became ill and 14% responded that they did not know whether or not they became ill (n=476, 11, 77 respectively, out of 564). However, 27% (151/565) had a friend, family member or coworker who became ill with COVID-19. Among this group, 22% spent up to 20 hours per week or more, and 37% spent up to 10 hours per week taking care of, or providing, emotional support to them (n=28 and 47 respectively, out of 127).

` Thirty-one percent of students (n=179) had their employment adversely impacted as a result of the pandemic – 14% had work hours reduced, 5% exited their job, and 14% were let go from their job and were unemployed at the time of the survey (n=76, 26, and 77 respectively, out of 563). Among those who re10

mained employed, 49% could reliably engage in social distancing at work, but many could not. In response to the question whether they are able to engage in social distancing at work, 18% responded “sometimes,” 15% responded “almost never,” and 18% responded “not sure” (n=216, 80, 68, and 81 respectively, out of 445).

In response to a question regarding what they worried about, given the changes at the university caused by the epidemic, 69% identified “doing well in my studies now that my classes are online;” 47% noted “paying my bills, e.g., tuition, loans, rent, Internet access, medical bills;” 35% reported “losing friendships and social connections now that classes are online;” 28% responded “accessing the technology needed for my online classes;” 14% noted “having access to health care;” 10% indicated “having enough to eat day-to-day;” 8% reported“ having a safe and secure place to sleep every night (n=311, 212, 156, 126, 61, 44, and 25 respectively, out of 450).

Effect of COVID-19 Lockdown on Students’ Educational Factors

Among the 68% of students enrolled in a face-to-face or blended course that transitioned to online (349/517) – for 34% (119/348) the transition was not easy. Students were asked about the challenges they faced in their courses during the pandemic. Fifty-four percent felt they did not have enough time to submit assignments, given other responsibilities caused by the pandemic; 34% reported insufficient consideration given by the instructor to changed circumstances caused by the pandemic; 34% felt unclear about how their face-to-face or blended course would transition to online; 28% noted too much noise and distraction due to their children staying home; 28% worried whether the university would cancel the term (n=276, 176, 173, 142, and 142 respectively, out of 514). Students were also asked about any technical issues that they experienced with online learning due to social distancing: 54% had an issue with reliable Internet access; 31% had a communication issue with the instructor; 22% had a technical issue taking a quiz or an exam; 19% had an issue with access to a computer with necessary software; 18% had an issue with access to textbooks and required coursework materials (n=190, 108, 79, 67, and 64 respectively, out of 353).

Students were further asked what the faculty or the university as a whole might do to assist in continuing their education: 66% wanted more flexibility regarding when assignments are due; 44% favored face-to-face and blended courses be reinstated when possible; 33% wanted improved communication from instructors to students; 33% wanted the availability of courses increased; 31% favored increased access to financial aid; 24% sought improved communication from the university to students; 23% wanted all courses kept online; 23% favored an increase in the availability and ease of advising; and 18% wanted courses online but with synchronous activities (n=328, 219, 167, 165, 154, 121, 114, 114, and 90 respectively, out of 497).

Discussion and Conclusion

These results reflect one survey at a given point in time. Cross-cultural comparative studies will augment the findings presented here as will longitudinal studies that will enhance our understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on levels of stress related to personal life and educational factors in university students. This said, survey results reveal students are facing financial, personal, and educational challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The outcome is high stress levels, physical illness in relatives, increased time commitment taking care of ill family members or friends, and adverse employment effects. These findings are consistent with the empirical studies conducted in Asia, Australia, and Europe.

Regarding their education, students’ main concern is doing well in their studies in the online environment. Flexibility regarding when assignments are due is important, as are technical issues and time availability. Students need time to become familiar with online learning, and synchronous activities should be included to provide a bridge to the more familiar face-to-face environment. The institution and instructors need to ensure timely communication with students. University leaders should take the responsibility of supporting the students financially so that they can stay on track to their degree completion. Proper counseling services and advising should be available to support the mental health and well-being of students.

References

Chen, B., Sun, J., & Fend, Y. (2020). How have COVID-19 isolation policies affected young people’s mental health? – Evidence from Chinese college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 11(1529), 1-6. Doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01529.

Galle, F., Sabella, E. A., Da Molin, G., De Giglio, O., Caggiano, G., Di Onofrio, V., et al. (2020). Understanding knowledge and behaviors related to COVID-19 epidemic in Italian undergraduate students: The EPICO study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3481), 1-11. Doi:10.3390/ijerph17103481.

Gallo, L. A., Gallo, T. F., Young, S. L., Moritz, K. M., & Akison, L. K. (2020). The impact of isolation measures due to COVID-19 on energy intake and physical activity levels in Australian university students. Nutrients, 12(1865), 1-14. Doi:10.3390/nu12061865.

Li, H. Y., Cao, H., Leung, D. Y. P., & Mak, Y. W. (2020). The psychological impacts of a COVID-19 outbreak on college students in China: A longitudinal study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3933), 1-11. Doi:10.2290/ijerph17113933.

Park University. (2020). Park at a glance. Retrieved from https://www.park.edu/about-park/park-at-a-glance/.

Prokopenko, I., & Berezhna, S. (2020). Higher education institutions in Ukraine during the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak: New challenges vs new opportunities. Revista Romanesca pentru Educatie Multimensionala, 12(1Sup.2), 130-135.

World Health Organization. (2020a). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19#:~:text=WHO%20announced%20COVID%2D19,on%2011%20March%202020.

World Health Organization. (May 2, 2020b). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Situation report – 103. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200502-covid-19-sitrep-103.pdf?sfvrsn=d95e76d8_6.

Zhang, Y., Zhang, H., Ma, X., & Di, Q. (2020) Mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic and the mitigation effects of exercise: A longitudinal study of college students in China. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3722), 1-16. Doi:10.3390/ijerph17103722.

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