Abyss Of Uncertainty: A Year Of Coping With Covid
We were all faced with differences in the early stages of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. While everything started with two weeks of holidays, it went up to become more than 52+ weeks of uncertainty. When all this started, nobody knew anything for sure. Not even the medical community was sure what this virus was or how it would be transmitted. All everyone could do was sit and wait as one lockdown followed another. Some were stranded somewhere, while others had their near and dear ones who could not make their way home in the lockdown. Many of us have had to go through the suffering of losing a loved one to this pandemic.
The mental health of many people around the world was seriously impacted by loneliness, unemployment, loss of their dear ones and many other challenges. Whipping up Dalgona coffee could distract one only to a certain extent before one noticed that the daily count of cases had reached almost one lakh. Fake news and myths were flying left, right and centre as people tried to make sense of something that no one alive had ever seen. We are here, though, exactly one year later.
The condition with the students of NIT Rourkela has not been very different. Even not faced with the extreme conditions of facing the challenge of COVID on the front lines, the mental health issues definitely took a toll on many. We all have been through a certain phase where each day would be getting worse and worse. Coping with loneliness, a sense of unproductivity or the fear of missing out on opportunities or studies have been the major reasons for the decline in the students’ mental health.
Team Monday Morning looks back at this unusual year and the various ways in which it has disrupted life at NIT Rourkela.
COLLEGE LIFE IN HIATUS
Universities worldwide were brought to a standstill rather abruptly in March last year. And ever since then, the entire world has been trapped in a state of uncertainty. Nonetheless, NIT Rourkela has been one of those institutes that have managed to maintain their academic calendar intact despite the hurdles.
The last year had thrown its own set of challenges. The administration finding no other way to compensate were compelled to announce the results of a whole semester, based just on the Mid-Semester results. The students missed out on practicals, half of the semester course, which posed a problem for many in the further semesters. Many students worked throughout the summer for the end semesters in June, which never came to occur. The students with Backlogs had the hardest time of all, considering they were not given a chance to clear those backlogs and are still uncertain about those dates in the future. A major decision was given in for sophomore year students in November where around 104 students were debarred for low CGPA and were asked to repeat their course with the first years as the backlogs were not cleared, even after completion of 3rd semester. After many objections, they were allowed to continue into further semesters they still have no concrete dates for the exams of their backlogs.
While academic stress existed among students before the pandemic, the online semesters and the continuing uncertainty over examinations have taken it to the limit. A substantial portion of the student population has experienced complicated emotions during this period. They have had to adjust to the online mode of learning, isolate themselves, and wipe the much-anticipated events off their calendars. And now, as offline examinations are around the corner, exam stress and the risk of catching COVID while returning amidst the upsurge have taken a toll on them.
For some, the pleasure of being at home with access to the internet may appear to have made academics and life a bit less stressful, while this may be true, but being endlessly stuck in one spot with never-ending notifications of telegram messages, emails, assignment deadlines, and club works suggest otherwise. Also, needless to say about keeping up with backaches, if not dwindling eyesight and PPTs.
While the overall scenario of online learning is an altogether vast subject for discussion, the following articles may help you form a better understanding.
Even our beloved fests faced the consequences. Starting with the cancellation of NITRutsav’20 just at the brink of its commencement, the plunge into this uncertainty started, which was heartbreaking for the members who put in their blood and sweat for the fest as well as for the students who were hoping for their change up plans. All hopes for the fest came to an end when even the in-house conduction of the fest was cancelled. As these uncertain weeks turned into a year, many fests were left out for the year 2020, snatching away their chances of witnessing the grandeur along with missing out on the college life experience for everyone. The hopes for returning by April 1st, 2020, changed to July, which further moved to November and has still not been concretely confirmed. Everyone has now missed so much of college life it’s hard to differentiate in which college are you studying except the fact of online classes.
EFFECT ON PLACEMENTS
While placements and internships are undoubtedly one of the most critical aspects of a student's career, they can be stressful, especially when the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdowns have altered the landscape of the country's employment sector. As per a survey by Firstnaukri.com, the pandemic has hit campus hiring across 82% of India's colleges.
According to a recent report by job search website Naukri.com, 66 per cent of students in India did not receive their offer letters. For 44 per cent of students, the joining dates were deferred after being hired. Further, another 33 per cent claimed they were not receiving any response from the employer on the status of their employment. Students, as per the report, are looking for a job on their own. Most of them have turned towards online job portals, while 17 per cent are taking the referral route and connecting with their college alumni. As per the survey, 83 per cent of students considered work-from-home and freelancing a viable career option.
Team Monday Morning contacted Pritish Kumar Kar, Secretary, Training and Placement Cell, to know the pandemic's impact on the placements and internships. He says:
The pandemic has had a mixed effect on the placements. We were engrossed with virtual hiring for the first time. While it has led many first-time companies to set relations with us, it has also affected the markets of varied sectors such as Automobile, which has resulted in freezing or late onset of their hiring cycles. And this has affected the scheduling of companies. The average cost to company (CTC) has remained almost the same as previous years for nearly all branches. In fact, in departments like the Department of Computer Science & Engineering and Department of Electrical Engineering, we have seen a substantial rise in average CTC. This is attributed to some high paying companies like Barclays, Myntra, Oracle intaking a good number of students.
Nonetheless, the Institute counselling Services (ICS) and different clubs in the institute have conducted seminars and events, making a continuous effort to make students aware of the mental health issues and help them to tackle the issues. Institute Counselling Services came up with various webinars and workshops like Importance of Mental Health, Stress Management, and Relationship Management, which helped students to tackle the problems head-on. While RITVIC-the official cultural club, in collaboration with ICS, conducted MANAS, a mental health awareness week to make students aware of the issues. Genesys-the official Bioengineering club conducted Mental health talk webinar.
Team Monday Morning went ahead to talk with institute Psychiatrist Dr P.K Nanda on mental health.
Monday Morning (MM): What do you think would have been the biggest challenge mentally for the students this pandemic hit year?
Dr.P.K. Nanda: According to a survey carried out by the Indian Psychiatry Society, there was a 20% rise in the number of cases of mental illness at the end of March 2020. Since then, things have become much worse. More psychiatric issues have developed. It is definitely not the effect of the virus but predominantly the psychosocial effect of the pandemic. The biggest challenge so far would be facing the fear due to the pandemic and facing all other related losses like loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of contact, loss of mental peace and other side effects.
MM: What's the major cause of mental health problems of all the students who have approached you so far?
Most of the students had a single major problem which was ‘Fear’.
The fear of the virus, the fear of being lonely, the fear of being left out, fear of missing out on opportunities and fear of uncertainty. Since this pandemic seems to continue unendingly, most of them developed the fear since there is no proper vaccine yet and a big uncertainty of life ever getting back to normal.
MM: What would be your advice for the students unable to cope with their situation and undergoing mental health issues?
Dr Nanda: The first advice to anyone going through such conditions is to seek support from their family or friends and not to undergo everything silently. Next would be to maintain proper COVID precautions and seek vaccination as early as possible. It will help to overcome the fear of the pandemic significantly. And lastly, it would be to contact us, the institute has prepared for such problems. Every student has been given treatment according to their issues like anti-depressants and anti-anxiety treatments.
A TOLL ON THE PROFESSORS
This past year has clearly been harsh on the students. However, we all must spare a thought about the professors also. They have been trying to provide the best education while facing various criticism from the students. What we sometimes fail to understand is that even they are facing the same challenges as we are.
Just like us students, all the professors were locked up on the campus for a large part of last year. When we consider how COVID-19 has been fatal, especially to the older demographic, it is clear that the professors must have been under a lot of mental distress. The trauma of having lost a colleague to COVID-19 with the unfortunate passing away of Prof. Smarajit Sarkar must have paid a heavy toll on the professors' mental state.
Prof. Seemita Mohanty, President of SAC, reflecting on how the atmosphere on campus was, stated:
There were a lot of apprehensions as not much information was present during the initial period. People were scared. We lost one of our professors, so everyone was depressed about it. Since it is a gated community, it was possible to take more precautions than outside. Still, the kind of uncertainty that was prevalent throughout the country was seen even here.
The shifting of the whole education system to online mode in months was also something that the professors had to get used to. Adapting to new teaching methods after years of teaching in an orthodox way could never have been easy. We know how difficult it is to learn online. Similarly, it is equally difficult to teach online. Sitting in front of a device and taking classes for hours have taken a toll on the professors. This has been difficult, especially for senior teaching faculty, many of whom have aggravated their pre-existing health conditions. The scenes of professors struggling with online classes and finding it difficult to use the technology have become very common. The professors, however, have risen to these challenges.
Speaking about how he kept his classes interesting and made sure that the students did not just join in and leave, Prof. Manish Okade from the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering said,
I made it clear that attendance was not compulsory as I don't believe that it can be a parameter to judge the students. I believe that if students like my classes, they will join automatically. Despite this, I had about 85% attendance in my classes. I kept the classes interactive by using the stylus to teach and asking the students what the next step will be. The teaching paradigm has changed. It is no longer a 'Chalk and Talk' approach. Now it is more focused on problem-solving and real-life applications. So traditional teaching won't hold good.
Besides the various technical challenges, the online medium has also made us lose out on the essence of the teaching-learning experience. Prof. Seemita Mohanty also gave her views on this and said,
The major challenge for me was that I could not see my students. The face-to-face interaction was missing. In a massive class of 150+ students, it becomes tough online to interact with everyone. I hardly have seen any of my students. This year I have taught so many students, and the sad part for me is that I would not recognize them on campus. This brings a sense of emptiness to me. I also considered it my responsibility to build a connection for the freshers to the institute, which was a whole new challenge.
This year has been difficult. The academics have taken a hit. We have had the final year students bid adieu to the campus without a proper farewell. We even have a new batch of students who know the institute only through their screens. In the process, we have lost out on many excellent memories we would have made on campus. However, the challenges are not over. We still need to stay strong to fight this pandemic and hope that these circumstances soon pass and life comes back to normalcy.
Amidst the rising cases, Team Monday Morning appeals to everyone to strictly adhere to the COVID norms.