“Many are struggling with the inconsistency of in-person and virtual schooling, and the anxiety associated with not knowing what next week will hold,” she added.
As executive director of Achieve Atlanta, Tina Fernandez provides hands-on help to Atlanta Public Schools students as they negotiate applying and going to college. She said the high school graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 missed significant milestones on that college journey as a result of a COVID-19.
And these transitional markers matter, she said.
“Students are telling us about the loss they felt from not having the high school prom, not having in-person graduation or not having on-campus orientation,” she said. “These are developmental experiences that help students make a mindset shift that didn’t happen.”
Students went from turning on their computers one day for high school classes to turning them on the next for college classes.
“Students told us, ‘I did not feel like I was going to college. I felt like I was logging onto another Zoom class,’” Fernandez said.
Benchmark student surveys by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse reveal the degree to which COVID-19 shaped the college experiences over the past two years. In a November survey of college students, 60% rated their mental health as fair or poor.
“We suffered from a traumatic experience,” a Clemson student said in the survey. “Why aren’t people understanding the depth of it?”
Asked what would be most helpful to make the semester better for them, about a quarter of survey respondents said more access to counselors or therapists.
The American Psychological Association found 81% of teens ages 13–17 experienced more intense school stresses due to COVID-19. Those stresses don’t disappear once high school students move on to college.
As a Penn State first-year student noted in the survey, “We need more interaction. I could not develop any relationships due to COVID and having to do classes online for fall semester and be distanced in spring semester. I feel like I don’t know anyone at my college after being enrolled for a full year.”
It is not that colleges don’t recognize student needs for mental health. They lack the staff to meet the increasing demand. Achieve Atlanta contracted with a service to provide a half-dozen online mental health sessions for the college students in its program.
“It’s not long-term care, but at least it’s six reliable sessions with somebody licensed on order to get the students through a crisis and then make proper referrals,” said Fernandez. She is urging colleges to use their federal COVID-19 relief aid to expand mental health services for students.
Colleges have learned lessons from the pandemic about communicating with students, said Grandits.
“I have seen some benefits on the college admissions side,” she said. “Colleges are using social media platforms like TikTok to communicate, and students are openly sharing their experiences on Reddit, creating access to information that may not have been available before.”
Grandits expects high school students may face challenges from having so much of their school and social lives occur online. But she also believes that students can recover
“While these students are going through a lot, they are doing some amazing things in this time,” Grandits said.