COVID Four Years Later: Social, Academic and Mental Impacts on Students

By Hannah Lee

As the COVID-19 pandemic nears the end of its fourth year, researchers are just beginning to study the impact of the pandemic on children and young adults. 

  COVID has shaped the collective school and university experience for the past few years. Most students who are currently studying on the University of Puget Sound campus have had their high school or college years affected in some way or other. Most students have had to do online schooling for a year or two. 

  In 2022, The New York Times reported that national test scores in math and reading fell in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A month later, The New York Times also reported how the pandemic affected the incoming freshman class of that year. Paulo Lima-Filho, the executive director of Texas A&M said to the NYT that students were lacking foundational skills and study habits. 

  The Trail spoke with Professor Bianca Wolf, a professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound who specializes in health and relationships, about some of the academic, social and mental health implications of the pandemic that she has seen. 

  Wolf cautions that the preliminary research that makes negative assumptions about how the pandemic ‘ruined the kids’ is just that – preliminary. “I think in much of the initial findings following the shutdown and remote learning were bombastic and nihilistic about things,” she said. 

  Wolf believes that these effects will likely be short-lived. “I’m seeing some academic repercussions of remote learning that I think could have lasting effects, as a result of not getting the same extent or quality of instruction. I am not seeing refined writing, research, and speaking skills come through in ways that I’ve seen with prior cohorts of students,” Wolf said when speaking about current freshmen and sophomores. “But I’m hoping that these effects will be short-lived as students progress through college, just like I’ve seen with the seniors now.” 

  Wolf also talked about how different life stages come with different milestones, and how your time in high school and college is important socially. She says that at this stage in your life, peer relationships take more precedence in many ways than familial relationships. “Those are the years where you start to actually develop independence from your families of origin and practice social skills through more mature and autonomous relationship experiences,” she said. During the pandemic, the time that students would have spent socializing with each other was severely diminished. “There was more social isolation and less opportunity to develop those skills and have those experiences, but that’s not to say that students won’t have them still,” Wolf said. “It’s just happening at a later stage for them. They’re having that now in college. So it’s just a bit of a delayed effect, and they can rebound from things.” 

  Wolf teaches COMM 156, or Introduction to Interpersonal Communication, and noticed that the students in that class were more reluctant initially to engage with each other at the start of the semester compared to prior groups of students. However, she also says that she has seen them develop socially with each other as the semester has gone on.

  The CDC Household Pulse survey reported that 51.6% of people ages 18 to 29 had depression and anxiety symptoms in Oct. 2023. “There has clearly been a spike in mental health issues, particularly among late adolescents and emerging adults,” Wolf said. She stressed that anxiety and depressive symptoms are somewhat typical at this stage in life as emerging adults are acquiring life coping skills, and can be amplified for college students in particular due to the change in environment and interactions with new people. However, she also said that if these symptoms are pronounced or prevent you from doing day-to-day things in your life, to go seek help from CHWS or other mental health services. 

  Compared to high school, college is more independent and self-structured, which can be stressful. Yet Wolf says that so long as students are “willing and motivated, they can clearly catch up both academic and social skills and knowledge.” Wolf also spoke about the many resources available to our students on campus, which are not always robustly available across all university campuses. The Center for Writing and Learning, Liaison Librarians and CHWS are there to help, and students should use them. 

  While the pandemic may have disrupted everyday life and had negative impacts, Wolf says that we should be optimistic and continue to set high expectations for students to achieve: “I think that the magnitude of pandemic effects will continue to decrease over time as we encounter younger generations coming into college, and I do believe that for those adolescents and emerging adults who were impacted in the last few years that effects will not be long-lasting – human beings are resilient creatures.”