Commuting and COVID-19: Moving Into The Future

An image of Carla, with short reddish-brown hair, wearing a light blue coat

Written by Carla Alexander, Content Writer

Icons illustrated by Vlada Gorchkova, Digital Storyteller

University of Toronto is considered by many to be a “commuter university” — a school where many individuals commute, as opposed to living on campus. According to Student Move TO, a study on Torontonian commuter students, UofT students often spend more than an hour a day commuting to and from school. This is often a source of stress for students: it impacts what courses they choose, how they find community, what extracurriculars they take part in, and how socially active they are on campus. 

Enter COVID-19. Many of our classes are now taught remotely, or labs are remotely administered… which has eliminated the need for a commute. Clubs, spaces, and services are also offering virtual options or asynchronous opportunities to engage with others. For commuter students, this may seem like a net positive, since they would have more free time, flexible options, and easier access to clubs and extracurriculars. However, is this actually the case? How do commuter students feel about distance learning? Are they looking forward to possibly returning to in-person classes? To answer this question, I interviewed three commuter students, all from St. George campus, who live within two hours of the city. As our worlds continue to evolve and shift in the coming months, we aim for these stories to highlight some of the many community student needs throughout our campuses, and challenge our assumptions of commuter student experiences in these ever-changing times.  

Weighing the Benefits: Commuting for Community 

A stylized illustration depicting a subway car, sitting in front of a fence, with a University of Toronto building in the background.

Many commuter students struggle with being social and taking part in extracurriculars. Having online clubs and societies may have made this aspect of university life easier, but is it preferable? Not necessarily. Jessica*, an undergraduate Industrial Engineering student, is socially active and engaged in student life. Prior to the pandemic, she still managed to balance her social life and extracurriculars with her academics and commute — even if it meant staying on campus until midnight and taking a late-night train home. For Jessica, the benefits of an in-person campus life outweigh the benefits of distance learning, despite the barriers she may face from commuting each day. Not only is it easier to socialize in person, but the commute itself gave her a chance to read books and listen to podcasts: a necessary bit of downtime in an otherwise busy life.  

A Time to Unwind: Setting Boundaries Between Work, Home, and School 

A stylized illustration of a subway car, a book and a pair of headphones. In the foreground is an illustration of three people with their heads together.

Jessica isn’t the only one who is looking forward to the return of their quiet commute time. Michael*, an undergraduate physics and statistics student, hasn’t listened to a single podcast since the pandemic started. He finds his commute meditative, despite the stresses it adds to his university experience. Michael’s commute also helps in other ways as well: it provides a barrier between his home, work, and school life. Ultimately, for Michael, it’s easier to get himself into the right mindset for studying when he’s commuting to school, and this has been something that’s been missing for him during the pandemic. For a lot of us, the pandemic has made it more difficult to set boundaries between our home, work and school lives — and this is in addition to the stresses of being stationary and homebound.  

Value of Virtual Connections: Prioritizing Accessibility and Safety 

A stylized illustration showing a book, a calendar, and two messaging bubbles connected to a laptop.

There are clearly a lot of benefits that come with in-person instruction — but what about the benefits of distanced learning? Hannah*, a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education, has a different perspective on the topic. With the switch to distanced events, Hannah has found it easier to be an active member of her campus community: she attends more classes, signs up for extra events, and no longer worries about snowstorms and train delays. While adjusting to online classes was initially a struggle for Hannah, she eventually got used to virtual spaces, and she sees the benefits in keeping those communities alive — especially for those who struggle to access in-person aspects of university life. For some, distance learning and online communities are simply more accessible, and we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that everybody will be comfortable going “back to normal”. 

Moving Forward: Finding a Balanced, Equitable Solution For All   

Commuter students at UofT are a wide and varied collective of students. Not every commuter student will have the same views on this important subject, and that’s based on a variety of aspects: how long they personally commute, what their campus life looks like, their personal preferences, etc. It would be a mistake to think that all commuter students wish to return to in-person instruction, or that the benefits of distanced learning largely outside the downsides. However, through these interviews, I discovered that both in-person and distanced learning have their positives and negatives, and that all of these aspects should be carefully considered when moving forward. With the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic, we can create a more accessible, equitable university experience for all.  

*Name changed for anonymity. 

(The statistics at the beginning of this post were taken from Student Move TO, a 2017 study on Torontonian commuter students. You can view a PDF of their results here.)

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