The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a time of abrupt and widespread change for higher education students. The majority of colleges and universities in the U.S. closed their campuses and the adaptation to online education upended students’ ability to receive resources and support in many areas of their lives. Bereavement and loss during the college years is often many students’ first experience of loss and impacts their academic and social environments. Recent literature notes students’ experiences of both death-related losses, as well as nondeath losses—such as losses of employment, sense of security, and academic life. Nondeath losses, which are often unacknowledged or devalued, are associated with greater risks of disenfranchised loss and prolonged grief.
Due to the wide range of changes and loss related to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic experienced by students in higher education, this study aims to describe: 1) social work students’ experiences of loss and grief during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States; and 2) the association between differing experiences of loss by age, degree program, and program modality.
This study utilized a convergent mixed method design to analyze open-ended responses to a national cross-sectional survey which assessed the experiences of loss of undergraduate and graduate students in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was conducted online through Qualtrics and distributed between April 24-May 26, 2020. The survey consisted of 65 items, including demographic variables, degree program, program modality, and an open-ended question assessing students’ experiences of loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were a total of 526 responses with 354 completing the open-ended question. Response bias was assessed, and there was no difference between participants who responded and those who did not. Open-ended responses were analyzed using a content analysis coding scheme to identify themes in the data and a second coder was utilized to increase rigor. A hit/miss matrix was generated through Dedoose and examined against pertinent demographic variables such as gender, age, ethnicity, program-type (campus-based, hybrid, and online), and program (BSW, MSW, DSW/PhD) using a chi-square analysis in SPSS.
Results indicate students experienced multiple, compounding losses during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, including experiential and relational losses, loss of necessities such as housing, employment and food security, as well as abstract losses (i.e. sense of safety or freedom). Students experienced an average of 3.45 distinct losses concurrently during this time. Group-based differences were found for between age groups and for students in campus-based and hybrid programs compared to online programs.
Students experienced widespread losses at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in areas of experiential and relational losses. Ten percent of students noted losses of housing, employment, and experiences of food insecurity necessitating institutional responses in times of crisis. The group-based differences with increased identification of experiential and relational losses for students in campus-based and hybrid programs has implications for the ways in which social work educators effectively engage students during times of academic disruption.