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These student services will adapt permanently as a result of COVID-19

Student Wellbeing programs at Ryerson responded to pandemic by offering virtual services
July 09, 2020
A young woman takes a video call on her computer from home

Students can expect certain services, like counselling, to continue to be offered by phone and video chat option even after a return to campus.

It’s mid-March, 2020. A pandemic is declared and the entire Ryerson community starts to adjust to COVID-19 isolation. Along with the university community, the staff at the Student Wellbeing offices acted quickly. They worked hard to ensure important things like medical and counselling services, and academic accommodations, were offered virtually without interruption as the community began working and learning remotely.

"It is incredible to be part of a team that converted an in-person service delivery model to a completely remote model within days. The team pulled together in a student centred, collaborative and professional manner,” said Allan MacDonald, executive director of Student Wellbeing. “We've learned a great deal from this experience, and we will almost certainly be able to apply our learning as we continue to update and innovate our Student Wellbeing support system."

Now that virtual services are in place, the Student Wellbeing team aims to continue to offer them in addition to in-person services once students return to campus.

Ryerson Today checked in with some of the student service providers across campus to hear how things have changed since COVID-19, and what changes are here to stay.

Health Promotion

A huge part of Ryerson’s Health Promotion service is to help students navigate campus supports and services. Before COVID-19, the Health Promotion Programs Coordinator, Juannittah Kamera, was offering weekly drop-ins for students.

Since lockdown, Kamera has been meeting with students online to field any and all questions, whether that be for international students trying to get home, or students asking about tuition fees.

Health Promotion will be running a six-week Student Wellbeing Series every Tuesday and Thursday beginning September 4, 2020 that will help students navigate a virtual version of campus. It will be a 30-minute weekly series where students can find out about registration, online learning and events.

“We need to prepare for our student’s health and well-being a lot more this year than we typically would,” said Kamera in reference to the challenges students are facing as a result of COVID-19. “This is going to be our new normal for a while. Now more than ever, we have to adapt how we work and support students in a much more kind and compassionate way.”

The Health Promotion Programs peer support program SHARP, will return in the fall and students will be able to receive continued support from highly trained peer ambassadors. Health promotion services will continue to be offered online, including one-to-one check-ins.

Medical Centre

One of the first priorities for the Medical Centre team at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown was to ensure staff had the right technology for remote work. All appointments, where possible, were shifted to phone or video. Forms, which were previously done in person, moved into an online model as well.

The Medical Centre also made an arrangement with a local family doctor’s office that has remained open during the pandemic to see students who require in-person services.

For the most part, though, “we have been able to do a large part of our work, mental health services, over a virtual method,” said Dr. Brooke Hogarth, physician lead.

“Patients appreciate being able to speak to their doctors on the phone,” said Dr. Hogarth. “They appreciate the option to stay home and just have a conversation.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Hogarth said there is a strong desire to continue to provide virtual care, in addition to in-person services, when lockdown ends.

“I hope there is some advocacy from both physicians and patients to the Ministry of Health to continue to provide these services in the future.”

Academic Accommodation Support and Test Centre

COVID-19 and the move to online learning posed a series of challenges specific to students with disabilities, as the team at the Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) office acknowledged when services were required to shift.

“While we often think about distance education as more accessible than in-person instruction, a virtual environment can also present a new set of barriers for a variety of students,” said AAS team member Sydney Tran.

The AAS team, including the Test Centre, worked in partnership with faculty to keep learning accessible for all AAS registrants (over 10 per cent of Ryerson's student population).

AAS was able to shift to a completely virtual model of support, while developing enriched programming and resources for students and instructors.

“We aimed to not only address gaps in knowledge and skills, but also targeted students' acute need for community in challenging times,” Tran said. “AAS students reported that the AAS STRIVE Online program helped them to feel "the most connected they've felt" since the pandemic response began.”

The STRIVE Online program is an online adaptation of the in-person program of the same name. It offers drop-in learning strategy and assistive technology support for students with disabilities. 

“This small group program provides a space for students to experience connectedness in an inclusive environment, while working through solutions to the unique challenges presented by online learning,” said Tran.

To help support ongoing online offerings to students, AAS will launch a new website, which will include information about STRIVE Online, for the fall 2020 semester.

Centre for Student Development and Counselling

The Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) is comprised of 19 counsellors – a mix of psychologists, social workers and psychotherapists – who had roughly one week to figure out virtual services that were private and safe for students.

The team prioritized existing clients and within a brief period were able to offer new appointments and services from home, by telephone or video. The CSDC also partnered with Keep.meSAFE, external link for 24/7 counselling and crisis support to ensure that any student, regardless of where they were located or time zone, could access care during the early days of pandemic uncertainty.

“A lot of students have said to us that it’s been helpful to have uninterrupted care from their counsellors. Those relationships didn’t change, they just went online or over the phone,” said Maura O’Keefe, who was the clinical coordinator at CSDC when lockdown measures were put in place.

“We had already been talking, before COVID-19, about beginning to offer virtual counselling options. The opportunity in all of this is that we basically had to make that happen. We will now be able to offer students a real variety of different methods of connecting going forward.”

The in-person counselling experience will resume when COVID-19 guidelines permit  and for now all counselling services continue over the phone or video. Students can continue to access Keep.meSAFE for 24/7 additional support during this uncertain time.

ThriveRU

The ThriveRU team, who offer courses and programs in resilience, self-care and the ability to thrive, have been very busy since COVID-19 lockdown started. Clinical psychologist Diana Brecher and Deena Kara Shaffer, co-ordinator of Student Transitions and Retention, curated their Thriving in Action Online content, created new content, delivered webinars for multiple campus partners and even created several tip sheets outlining ways for the community to care for themselves during COVID-19.

“We narrowed our focus from ‘Thriving in Action’ to ‘Thriving at Home’,” said Shaffer. “What we’re teaching students is going to shift in ways that are permanent. There is [now] a real emphasis on inner resources and approaches to self-regulate, for students who can’t pop by in person.”

Brecher and Shaffer will be adapting the curriculum of their Thriving in Action Online program to accommodate independent study. They are also working to assist with orientation for fall 2020.

“There’s an awareness from across campus. Faculties are being very thoughtful about students and are asking questions like, ‘how do we become a welcoming campus even though we’re not there?’” said Brecher. “There’s great intentionality and I’m excited to see what orientation and the new fall term looks like.”

Learn more about services from Ryerson Student Wellbeing online.

This is one story in a series about how Ryerson University departments have successfully faced the challenges presented by COVID-19. Is there a team you think deserves recognition? Email us at ryersontoday@ryerson.ca. 

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