Before and after COVID-19 shifted everyone online: Health challenges and community college student outcomes

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

In this session, we explore the extent to which community college student health-related events both prior and during the spring 2020 pandemic term (when instruction moved fully online) correlated with course outcomes. Implications for online course policy moving forward are discussed.


Catherine A. Manly is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the City University of New York Graduate Center and teaches for Bay Path University. She earned her PhD in higher education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She brings a social justice lens to quantitative investigation of transformational innovation. Her research aims to improve affordable postsecondary access and success for students underserved by traditional higher education, particularly through the changes possible because of online and educational technologies. Her dissertation investigated the effectiveness of using multiple modalities when presenting course content (one aspect of Universal Design for Learning) for improving student learning outcomes in online courses. She was formerly the Director of Educational Technology and Distance Learning at Manchester Community College, and she worked in the Information Technology Department at Amherst College.

Extended Abstract

Session Goals

Attendees will be able to identify the prevalence of community college students’ reports of serious health events both before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. They will be able to describe related differences in course outcomes pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, when instruction was moved fully online.

Study Motivation

During spring 2020, COVID-19 engendered a rapid shift to a fully online mode of instruction. New York City was the first U.S. location hard-hit by the pandemic, and therefore, students at the City University of New York (CUNY) were some of the first to be significantly impacted by the pandemic in the U.S. This created pedagogical challenges for instructors concurrent with many students experiencing significant pandemic-related life challenges. We explored the extent to which conditions of the spring 2020 pandemic semester appeared to impact the health of students in relation to their (online) course outcomes, drilling down to explore possible reasons and implications of some unexpected results. 

Theoretical Framework

This research draws on the concept of Body Capital, which “encompasses all the resources that ‘live in the body’: physical, mental, and psychological” (Wladis & Fay , n.d.). In theorizing body capital, physical and mental health are embodied resources that are inequitably distributed across students. Students who are themselves ill or disabled have lower stores of body capital, daily tasks may more rapidly deplete body capital because of their condition, and stigma and discrimination related to their condition, as well as the time and energy involved in managing their condition, can deplete these stores even further (Jowsey et al., 2012; Lerdal, 1998).


Students at the largest community college within the City University of New York (CUNY) were surveyed during the spring 2020 semester. A sample frame of 600 students was selected randomly from students enrolled in core STEM subjects: 100- and 200-level courses in computer sciences or computer information systems, mathematics, STEM education, and psychology. Of the 600 students recruited to participate in this study, 529 submitted a survey, for a response rate of 88.2%. Survey data were merged with institutional research data, including student demographics and course outcomes for the semester. Both linear regression and linear probability models were used for analysis. Control variables included gender, ethnicity, age, GPA, first-semester freshman status, and median household income of zip code based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In addition to analyzing means of the survey items, we also analyzed the relationship of these measures to successful course completion using regression. Successful course completion was defined as completing the course with a C- or better, since this is the typical requirement for receiving credit in the major or transfer credit.

Results and Discussion

In considering the results, it turns out our intuitions were not always a good gauge of the outcomes. We encourage participants to bring their intuitions to our session and be surprised by what you learn. We will challenge participants to think about reasons why these results occurred and then engage in active discussion of implications for online learning policy moving forward. Next, we offer a summary of the results to be shared and discussed (spoiler alert!).

  1. Overall, 28% of students had already experienced a serious health issue of their own (and 24% of them for a family member) during the first third of the spring 2020 term prior to pandemic onset; these numbers rose to 42% and 45%, respectively, after pandemic onset. If we combine all health conditions, 37% of students had a personal or family health event prior to the pandemic and 54% experienced such an event after pandemic onset. Combining both pre-pandemic and pandemic events, roughly two-thirds, or a total of 65% of students, experienced personal or family “serious illness/injury/disability, including mental health” during the spring 2020 term.
  2. The incidence of health events, as well as students’ ratings of their impact, significantly predicted successful course completion, both before and after including controls. Including controls reduced the size of the coefficients a little, but overall trends remained. Students who reported personal or family health events pre-pandemic were 17.3 and 16.6 percentage points, respectively, less likely to successfully complete the course; these differences were both substantial and highly significant. Students reporting that personal or family health events occurred for the first time after pandemic onset (when fully online) were only 6.4 or 9.4 percentage points less likely to successfully complete the course, respectively. This relationship was not significant for personal health events and was only significant at the α = 0.05 level for family events. The data show that experiencing a personal or family health event correlated with a 19.4 percentage point mean reduction in successful course completion if it occurred prior to the pandemic (highly significant at p<0.001), but only a 10.1 percentage point reduction if it occurred after pandemic onset when instruction took place online (significant at p=0.025).
  3. Looking at student ratings of the impact of a health event on their studies, for each 10 points higher that a student rated the impact (out of 100), they were 3 percentage points less likely to successfully complete the course if the event occurred prior to the pandemic (highly significant at p<0.001), vs. 1 percentage point if the event occurred after pandemic onset when instruction was fully online (significant at p=0.041).

These results will form the basis of sensemaking discussion among participants during our session, wherein we will explore possible explanations for these results. One possible explanation for the results could be that the increased flexibility offered both by instructors and the fully online medium after the onset of the pandemic (Lederman, 2020) helped students suffering from health challenges to better keep up with their coursework, whereas this flexibility was not necessarily accessible to students facing health challenges prior to the pandemic. (We note that this is only speculative because we have no causal data to support this conclusion.) However, it might be worth exploring offering students more flexible course policies and mediums to improve the extent to which all students who need increased flexibility, and students with significant health challenges in particular, are able to succeed in their courses in college.

Interactivity Plan

This session will include an interactive discussion organized around a series of provocative questions grounded in our research results and intended to inspire future research and intervention direction. Attendee responses will be compared to actual outcomes found in our study, followed by probing discussions of how our intuition and knowledge from prior research and experience may translate to pandemic-era/post-pandemic student experiences. Take-aways for future research directions will be elicited, aimed at identifying interventions that could be continued or developed to support students moving forward. This interactive discussion format will help the online research community, as well as faculty, staff and administrators who support online students, understand our results and consider how they may be applied in future institutional research and campus support efforts.



Jowsey, T., Yen, L., & Paul Mathews, W. (2012). Time spent on health related activities associated with chronic illness: A scoping literature review. BMC Public Health, 12(1044).

Lederman, D. (2020). How teaching changed in the (forced) shift to remote learning. Inside Higher Ed

Lerdal, A. (1998). A concept analysis of energy. Its meaning in the lives of three individuals with chronic illness. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Science, 12(1), 3–10.

Wladis, C., & Fay, M. P. (n.d.). The holistic capital model: Introducing time and body capital as sources of inequity.