I’m Worried … Higher Education Isn’t Focused at all on COVID-19’s Psychological Toll

By Karen Gross

The number of articles on the impact of the coronavirus on higher education is growing by the minute. That’s understandable and necessary. The spread of this virus (which happens easily in a campus setting) raises critical questions about what educational institutions can and should do in light of the now spreading COVID-19 virus. And the raised issues are remarkably varied and call for all those involved in running institutions to approach these concerns thoughtfully and quickly, given the speed with which the virus is spreading, particularly in some states.

Most of what is being written, as best as I can tell, focuses on what I’d lump together as the physical threats and risks of the coronavirus. (One key exception is the effort of campus research facilities working on a cure or immunization.)

Institutions with study-abroad programs, particularly in affected regions of the globe, need to get these students home. How easily can they do that? In the balance, the students’ semester learning experience, their credit hours and their payment. Then, there are students about to go abroad during spring break and thereafter. Should campuses in the U.S. be comfortable sending their students into foreign nations and if so, which ones? And there are the student aid questions—no small piece of the educational financial picture.

Then, there are issues of the spread of the virus close at hand—on campuses themselves. Will students need to be quarantined in some location (their room, their dorm, an infirmary, another remote location) to prevent cross-contamination? Think about the cruise ship analogy where campuses are quarantined. Ask whether colleges that have only dabbled in online learning will have to create workable systems speedily.

As campuses close or cancel classes due to the virus, what happens to students who can’t afford to get home or for whom “home” is in a nation infected by the virus?

There are questions about how to handle athletic events at home and off campus. We’ve already moved from handshakes to elbow or fist bumps. Ponder March Madness, where large crowds gather and whether those signature games should be played “fan-free,” forgetting for a moment all the lost revenue.

Consider commencement season approaching. There are also faculty are traveling to conferences, often paid for by their educational institutions. Some of these have already been cancelled and others are pondering cancellation.

Then, there is an enormous issue regarding admissions; many colleges rely on new students arriving on campus from foreign nations to meet their enrollment targets. For fiscally fragile colleges, 10 or 20 students can make a difference between a balanced and unbalanced budget. One wonders what accreditors are thinking as they approach accreditation with a real monkey wrench thrown into the mix.

Everything from elbow bumps to dispensers with alcohol based cleaner are circulating across campuses. Students are being encouraged to wash their hands and not touch their face. Door handles are taboo too; push doors open if possible.

Beyond soap and water

Don’t get me wrong; these are all important issues and they need to be addressed. But they fall into the bucket of what I’d call short and longer-term physical safety issues. Soap and water aren’t an adequate psychological response to this virus.

What really worries me is that the soap and alcohol focus means we are not focused on the psychological impact the threat of this virus—even if it does not strike close to home or campus—on students (and faculty, staff and administration). Soap and alcohol are not psychological mediators and they do not lower the stress and fear and toxicity of the virus threat.

Indeed, seeing people on and off campus wearing masks is frightening or at least startling. Repeated reports on death counts on social media are scary, particularly since it is apparently hard to distinguish COVID-19 from another virus like the common cold or the flu. Seeing maps being filled in with new cases raises anxiety. Myths and rumors abound. There are opportunities for discrimination based on national origin that are totally misguided and misplaced. Social media is working overtime, including the creation of conspiracy theories as to how the virus started and whether it had political motivations. Cancellations of events and speakers have an impact of the “normalcy” of campus life. And, for students living far from their family, the issues are exacerbated; even cell phones and FaceTime may not close the gaps. Then, add to that the threat of campuses closing and there are a host of issues tied to both closure and reopening.

Stated most simply, the physical protection of our students has missed a focus on their psychological well-being and the traumatizing effect the threat of this virus can have—including re-triggering prior trauma. As some commentators has observed, we have a viral epidemic but also a fear pandemic. For the record, fear and anxiety and toxic stress produce trauma symptomology in some students and impair learning, social engagement and physical health (not from the virus itself). How we deal with the psychological impact of the COVID-19 situation is the critically important question for all educators, in addition to and side-by-side with the physical protections. One without the other won’t help our students. At the end of the day, we need both physical and mental well-being.

Stated most simply, we need to recognize first and then deal with the psychosocial impacts of the threat of the virus and school closings and disruptions on students. This requires understanding how the virus’s threat can be traumatizing and lead to trauma symptomology. And we need to be able to help students deal with their symptoms—not of the virus but of the trauma of the virus. They are not the same thing. And we need to be able to see those symptoms—recognize them, deal with them, ameliorate them. Our students deserve nothing less.

The threat of the coronavirus is distressing on many levels to individuals, families and communities. It can impact how we talk, behave, respond and feel. It can impact how we connect with others, physically and psychologically. Depending on one’s personal background and life experience, the threat of the virus can raise issues such as our likelihood of becoming ill, the likelihood of being quarantined or having those we love being quarantined. For many, quarantines are frightening, especially those who have experienced immigration detentions or imprisonment or other unwanted detentions or separations say in child custody or foster care contexts. Just look at the psychical impact of what is happening at houses of worship: Congregants are not shaking hands; they are touching fists or elbows.

There are no simple solutions for dealing with the psychological impact of trauma. That said, a list of some suggestions seems better than no suggestions. Accordingly, and recognizing that these need to be personalized to each campus and its particular student population, here are some strategies for campus personnel to consider implementing to deal with the psychic price we are and will be paying for COVID-19 on campuses that are open. For closed campuses, that requires another whole blog in terms of strategies for closing and then reopening–both pieces need to be done right.

1. Don’t downplay the truth or pretend there are no risks. Don’t send around ambiguous campus emails that dance around the truth. We do way better dealing with the truth with calmness and thoughtfulness and with a recognition of the impact this virus is having even without it being literally in our home or bodies. Honesty also builds trust and a belief in the decisions made down the road in terms of closures and events. This is key too: Students need to sense calm from the “adults” in the room.

2. Do activities at the start of every class to lower autonomic nervous system; these should involve the senses. When the autonomic nervous system is on high alert, student learning is impaired. If your mind is elsewhere, you cannot concentrate or absorb material or even prepare well for class. Pushing ahead as if everyone were “with you” is a flawed strategy. For a faculty member to be heard, the autonomic nervous system has to be in a state of rest. Consider having students write three words that are on their mind with their non-dominant hand and then share those words with the larger group (if students are comfortable with that level of disclosure). Ask students to stand on their non-dominant leg (no hands to help) for 30 to 45 seconds and talk about balance as a sixth sense. (Regaining one’s center has multiple meanings.)

3. Consider changing up the material being covered for a week or two and doing academic work in a discipline that ties into the virus. STEM faculty can look at the meaning of a virus and the history of viruses. Some groups can look at the ways to curb viruses, including vaccines. Non-STEM faculty can have students see what virus’ look like and draw them. One can read articles and critique them for faculty accuracy and see where exaggerations take place. One can look at pandemics in history and their impact on societies. One can look at the discriminatory impact pandemics can engender. The list of “academic” inroads is endless and there are already some high school and elementary school teachers using the virus as “teachable moments.” True, it is hard to describe a deadly virus as a teachable moment but it is; I’d prefer saying, for the record, that these are teaching opportunities.

4. Consider campuswide pop-up courses for students (short courses, small groups, one-credit intensives). Some pop-up course suggestions: a) What is a pandemic (note word panic within it) and when have they occurred in U.S.? b) Are masks helpful in preventing disease spread and, if so, for whom? c) Is quarantine the best strategy for disease containment? What does quarantine entail? Pop-ups are an opportunity to prevent myths and falsehoods from festering. Ideally, use one’s own faculty as that will engender trust and perhaps have folks cross disciplines.

5. Create safe spaces on campuses where students can go to share their concerns and not feel they will be mocked or criticized for being “soft” or “gullible” or “snowflaky.” Have adults with trauma training in these spaces to listen and offer comfort and a sense of belonging. It is easy to feel left out if one’s peers are taking the virus threat lightly or ignoring it and headed out for the usual Thirsty Thursday.

6. All educators need to be on the lookout for students whose behavior is changing: isolating themselves, acting out, not participating, doing poorly on tests or not even studying. That is a signal that trauma symptomology may be invading that student’s psychic space and that would explain the behavior. Now is not the time to lower grades or tell people to just push through the stress or disregard their feelings. No indeed. We need to recognize that trauma is real and has profound effects. Those effects can be felt by roommates, friends, lovers, educators, families and communities.

Are we trained?

Let’s be clear and honest. We are better trained to deal with physical injury than psychic injury. That’s why I have a whole book coming out on this subject titled Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Solutions and Strategies for Educators, PreK—College (TCPress June 2020). And the book does deal with situations like this. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet out. So, what appears above is my best effort to share in summary (but accurate) fashion what we need to do when there is trauma (and the virus presents the opportunity for trauma and trauma symptomology).

In short, we need to: name it (recognize the trauma), tame it (conduct activities/strategies that deal with the psychological impact of trauma and its symptomology including with respect to the autonomic nervous system in the short term and other symptomology in the longer term) and frame it (identify the importance of trauma and its symptomology to moving forward and enabling learning, psychosocial wellness and physical health).

Karen Gross is former president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She specializes in student success and trauma across the educational landscape. Her new book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Solutions and Strategies for Educators, PreK-College, will be released in June 2020 by Columbia Teachers College Press.


2 Responses to “I’m Worried … Higher Education Isn’t Focused at all on COVID-19’s Psychological Toll”

  1. Barb Geiss

    Thank you. I’d like to purchase your book when it comes out. – Barb (School Counselor)

  2. Pushpa

    Thanks for the information you provided in your blog. Online education is here to stay
    and so are online jobs. The COVID situation has given a further boost to online learning and work from home.


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