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Opinion: The online transition must be more accessible, accommodating for students

Instructors should be better equipped to meet mental health needs
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

As we combat another semester of online classes, the need for mental health resources is surging as a consequence of rigorous course structures and social isolation. 

U of T’s task force has unveiled Navi, a virtual chat assistant created in partnership with IBM that can aid students in finding the best resources for their mental health needs in a quick, user-friendly, and fully anonymous way. Other helpful resources are available for all students, including a multilingual app for counselling, My Student Support Program, and an online forum created in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health meant to assist those struggling with mental health due to the added stress of COVID-19.

Despite that, U of T fails to address one major shortfall: providing professional development to instructors on mental health needs for their students, something especially necessary with the online class framework.

Students, across different courses and programs, have expressed on social media platforms the strong link between increased workload and overwhelming stress. Many students feel overwhelmed from attending classes and completing the numerous quizzes and assignments across different platforms like Persuall, Quercus, Wiley, and TopHat. They feel that there is no time left for them to focus on their mental and physical health.

It’s a sad reality as U of T’s extensive workload, due to competitiveness, results in social isolation leading to a lacking sense of community amongst students. Consequently, none of these new resources could be implemented impactfully, as students are overburdened with so many tasks to be completed on a weekly basis.

For students registered with Accessibility Services (AS), it gets tougher as accommodation needs can be compromised due to the online transition. As a registered student with AS, having many learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it was essential for me to request accommodations within my courses. To my awe, one of my professors could not provide my accommodation of extra time on my homework assignments, as it was too difficult to change the system for one student.

It got worse, as my accommodation for a heavily marked assignment in the same course was disregarded, followed by an announcement emphasizing that deadlines were firm for students with and without accessibility needs, and requests for extensions would be “ignored.”

However, if it weren’t for my advisor at AS Jennifer Kirk I wouldn’t have understood the rights I have as an AS registered student. If you are a student registered with AS and require accommodations, you must reach out to your advisors. 

There are only a handful of instructors whose teaching approach focuses on student learning and not accountability. A takeaway from this is that U of T needs its mental health support policies to provide effective guidelines to professors on how to better accommodate their students. 

The implementation of new resources is a sign that U of T is on the right path, but none of this is relevant, given these teaching approaches that are causing students to burn out and exhaust themselves. It’s crucial for U of T to focus on addressing students’ needs, in respect to changing circumstances, by being proactive to changing student demands and not just hearing us, but also listening to us.  

 

Asma Unwala is a second-year economics student at University College.