Exploring the Effects of the “COVID Gap Year”

Written by Alex Gallaway

The shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic still move through the halls of every educational institution in the world. Even if masking and social distancing seem like a thing of the past, we still see echoes reflected in increased competitive GPAs, greater opportunities for online classes, and the elimination of the idea that it’s good to “tough it out” and attend classes when you have a stuffy nose. You could do a doctoral thesis on how the pandemic affected education as a whole, but for the purpose of this article, I wanted to examine one aspect in particular: the “COVID Gap Year.” 

I graduated from high school in June of 2020, about three months after pandemic fears, dangers, and restrictions came into play in Alberta. I was accepted into two different college institutions, but decided to take a gap year in order to avoid online classes and to try and upgrade my marks to get into University. In my case, my gap year was one of the better decisions I made in terms of my academics, and it ended up paying off as I started at The University of Lethbridge the following fall of 2021. However, I also have had friends and peers who feel as though their pandemic work/upgrading year simply wasted their time or slowed them down. This inspired me to do a more thorough look into the experiences of those who took a gap year or semester between the start and end of pandemic restrictions. 

Although the student body at the UofL is quite large, the group of students who have taken a gap year and returned is smaller than you might expect. I reached out to several classes in the University, as well as a few friends from other institutions, and gathered a handful of statistics, as well as comments from students who have taken a gap year or semester previously. Most students surveyed (45%) started their gap time in 2020, with an even 27% starting in both 2021 and 2022. 72% of students had three to five or more

semesters of their schooling (high school or post-secondary) affected by the pandemic, with the remainder having one to two semesters affected. 

Questions four and five pertained to why students chose to take a gap year. While 31% stated that personal reasons were the main contributing factor, avoiding online classes was a close runner-up with 27%. 64% listed COVID-related reasons as a contributing factor towards taking a gap year (avoiding online school, masking, vaccines, social distancing, etc). 

Question six asked students what the most detrimental part of seeking an education during the pandemic was. Although a few students answered that mandatory masking, limited access to activities, and missed practicum were detrimental to their academics, a notable 77% stated that the worst part of school during the pandemic was online classes. Unsurprisingly, no students stated that their schooling was left unaffected by the pandemic. 

Of the students surveyed, roughly 36% stated that they would not have taken a gap year had it not been for the pandemic. Although it’s less than half, that’s a considerable amount of students who, had it not been for the pandemic, would not even have considered taking a gap year/semester. The most outstanding statistic in this survey was that 95% of students said they don’t regret taking a gap year, with most of those being strong “I don’t regret it at all” answers. 5% answered “neutral,” and not one student I surveyed stated that they regretted their gap year somewhat or at all.

There was an overwhelmingly positive response when it came to comments about gap years. A comment from one student read, “I think [I] was really burnt out after most of my high school experience being through the pandemic, and taking the gap year before I came to the university really let me recharge in a number of areas. I came back motivated to learn and do well, craving the structure of a schedule of classes… It really helped, I feel, in finding a way to recognize the need for a balance and how to attain that balance.” Another response

read, “I lost a lot of my friends during my gap year, as they all went straight into post-secondary out of high school. I think that had high school gone normally, I would have lost them anyway. On the plus side, I got a lot of new friends and new priorities during my gap year.” Initially, I was expecting a lot of negative responses from people who took gap years; people feeling like they missed out, wasted time, or lost out on experiences. Most of the scarce complaints were from people who said they lost some social relationships but that it was worth the benefits of feeling better-prepared for university and avoiding online/distance learning. 

Although the pandemic was detrimental to students in many ways, my research and experience have shown that it also persuaded many to take gap years before/during post-secondary, which most students appear to believe helped them in their academics overall.

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