Return of normalcy next semester could have lasting mental health effects

Baylor plans for a "normal" fall semester as vaccination efforts increase virus safety on campus. Christina Cannady | Photographer

By Annaleise Parsons | Staff Writer

As Baylor starts to plan for a larger in-person semester next fall, long-term effects from COVID-19 could linger among the Baylor community including anxiety or depression, experts say.

Baylor President Dr. Linda Livingstone announced in her weekly email to the Baylor community that the fall semester was being planned to become more in-person, similar to the fall of 2019.

“As we start looking toward the fall semester, I want you to know that we are planning for a return to ‘normal’ campus operations beginning in August,” Livingstone wrote. “…We expect that the large majority of classes will return to in-person delivery; however, we are planning for an online option for courses with multiple sections.”

Dr. Thomas Fergus, an associate professor in the department of neuroscience and psychology, said long-term effects from COVID-19 would depend on each person’s experience and disposition before and during the pandemic.

“A lot depends on the person’s circumstance…if they got very sick themselves, a family or close friend got very sick or died from COVID-19, you are probably more likely to see continued lingering effects and that may revolve around depression or a sense of loss,” Fergus said.

Each person’s character traits also must be factored into the possibility of emotional long-term effects.

“If they were someone who was prone to negative emotions before the pandemic, the pandemic could serve as a stressor to heighten those concerns and they may be slower to go away following the pandemic,” Fergus said.

For those who didn’t have a significant negative experience, Fergus did say that there is a possibility that there may be “elevated health-related anxiety from the stress and change of behavior” such as social-distancing and mask mandates that was promoted for public-health safety.

When looking at the fall semester, there could be long-term mental health effects within students and instructors that may become more apparent as in-person events and classes appear.

While Fergus is not on the COVID-19 task force at Baylor or making official recommendations to the university, he does think that social distancing may increase the long-term mental health effects from the pandemic.

“Assuming that the mask mandate goes away…which may or may not happen from the university’s perspective, continuing to be in larger classrooms could be a benefit to students. There’s more distance, you feel like you have more space,” Fergus said. “I think that’s something that is likely to make people more comfortable.”

Jason Cook, the vice president of marketing and communications, said in an interview with Siegrid Massie, a broadcast reporter and anchor for LTVN, that more in-person class sections does require a lack of social distancing.

“The only way that will work to have that return of in-person classes is if we eliminate that social distancing component within classes,” Cook said.

The fall semester is five months away and Cook said that plans for the fall semester are dependent on the coronavirus and the vaccination efforts.

“We are continuing to be smart because COVID-19 is not simply going to go away. In terms of protections….our main push is right now is to strongly encourage students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated.” Cook said.

As more vaccines have become available with all adults above the age of 16 in Texas being eligible, Baylor is not requiring vaccines at this point, Cook said. Baylor is, however, strongly encouraging them.

“The vaccines are going to be an important part of unlocking normalcy,” Cook said.

For those who may be suffering from mental health effects from the pandemic, the Baylor Counseling Center is available to help at 254-710-2467.