The COVID-19 pandemic has reached all corners of the globe and the higher education sector has been one of the most heavily impacted. Professors and students have been forced to adapt to virtual learning and remote working rapidly. And they’re doing so admirably. However, these unchartered territories are still taking their toll. 

The crisis is having an emotional impact on students and university staff. Travel bans have prevented fieldwork, and the closure of institutions has forced lab work to cease and associate professors to abandon their research, potentially for the foreseeable future. Students feel uncertainty and the need to adapt on a tectonic scale. Now that most schools are likely to remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, some students and professors may now have to work remotely, handle childcare and juggle more tasks than ever before.

However, while the obstacles are undeniable, they’re not impossible to overcome. Many institutions have already put measures in place to give professors more job security, including protections against being made obsolete due to recorded lectures.

And it’s not all bad. Isolation can, for example, be a catalyst for creativity and productivity. By developing and improving new ways of remote working, we may be able to not only weather the pandemic without too much sacrifice, but come out the other side with new initiatives and strategies in place to change the education sector forever.

If an increase in remote working and virtual teaching are inevitable for the foreseeable future, we need to understand the logistical and emotional challenges that universities face. More importantly, we must think of creative ways to overcome them. In this article, we’ll look how the impact of COVID-19 in the education sector has affected our mental health, how universities are coping and what you can do to prevent the pandemic from bringing you to a grinding halt.

The Challenges of Remote Working in Higher Education

Taking on childcare responsibilities and remaining productive while remote working can be exhausting. Many professors are now lecturing undergraduates and postgraduates while managing their home-schooling. In many situations, partners can help to ease the burden on professors with too many tasks to juggle. But with so many people either out of work or forced to work from home, childcare responsibilities can often be shared at best.

Even if you can find a way to balance your duties at home and at work, it’s going to prove challenging to maintain your productivity and, just as importantly, keep your mood up. 

It’s no surprise to see researchers concerned about the survival of their projects and livelihoods given that it may be months before they can resume work. With job uncertainty and worries about public health, anxiety in many professors from a vast number of fields seems likely to increase.

When it comes to mental health and how remote working affects universities, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that access to support is now much more limited. Face-to-face interactions are all but over. Plus, professors, like all people, have more than just education to worry about right now. Many people have elderly relatives, health issues and a lack of a financial safety net. Those kind of problems during a time of a crisis can overshadow fears that concern workplace productivity.

How can we overcome these challenges?

Scores of institutions have already introduced measures to digitise their educational offering. LSE, UCL, Durham University, Manchester Metropolitan and Loughborough have already made the move to 100% online teaching. 

Examinations are also being moved online and many universities won’t evaluate students’ performances for the coming months, ensuring the pandemic doesn’t unfairly reflect poorly on educators. LSE is already moving all examinations online. 

Ensuring both professors and students can weather the pandemic emotionally requires investing in the digital platforms required to modernise and maintain your high standard of education delivery. But it may also mean adapting to the digital world in unexpected ways, such as by compensating professors to subscribe to high-speed internet packages and hiring childminders. Universities abroad, such as the University of Michigan, have already taken such steps.

Forward-thinking universities are also making more resources available for mental health support during the pandemic. The University of Nottingham has made available a 24-hour mental health support line for anyone – staff and students – who needs support during the crisis. 

We’ve yet to see what the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be for the higher education sector, but we can confidently say that institutions must pay attention to mental health as they move to remote working. What’s certain is that institutions must learn from each other if they’re going to weather the current crisis. There’s a lot of teams doing a lot of good things. We hope you’ll find ways to follow in their footsteps.