Faculty Guide to Helping Students Manage Stress from COVID-19 and Online Learning

You and your students are facing significant change. Across the world, students have transitioned to full or partial online education and have been socially distancing from peer groups. Some have moved back in with family after having lived on campus or in their own apartment. We know that change creates stress, but we also know that stress is a normal part of life. As everyone adapts to the changes necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, here are some ideas for how to help students, and yourself, with the transition.

Set the Tone
Most importantly, know that as a professor, your calm and sure presence will set the tone for students to feel more calm.

Stay Connected
Relationships with professors play a key role in student retention. Relationships matter more than ever now. You may be an important contact with the university for your students.

Address Stress Directly
Consider addressing the normal stress of this transition at the start of the semester and any time during the semester when it feels appropriate. For example, “The start of this semester has been a real challenge for all of us. We have all been through a lot, between the pandemic and ongoing issues of racism, but I am here to reassure you that we will be ok.”

Validate Students’ Experiences
Students may have experienced some or all of the following, and you may have as well. In class discussions and one-on-one talks with students, let them know they are not alone.

  • Loss of or reduction in face-to-face opportunities to connect with others
  • Trouble participating in class due to being in a different time zone
  • Uncertainty of the duration of the pandemic
  • Fear of infection for self and loved ones
  • Trauma due to personal or televised violence and racism
  • Trauma due to COVID-related losses and fears
  • Frustration and boredom
  • Grief due to losses such as career opportunities, sports and organizations, social events, in-person worship services, rituals (e.g., graduation parties, family gatherings), illness or death of loved ones, illness or death of public figures to which the student feels connected
  • Stress due to contradictory information about health and safety
  • Distrust of those with perceived authority and/or power
  • Microaggressions and racism
  • Lack of or barriers to adequate medical or mental health care
  • Fear that confidentiality is compromised
  • Uncertainty around new routines and norms
  • Financial difficulties
  • Family tension, partner or family violence or abuse


Remind Students of Community Expectations
“San Francisco/USF is putting these safety precautions in place to protect all of us and reduce community spread of COVID. Thank you for helping with this effort. I’m proud of you.”

Be Patient with Students and Yourself
“This may take a little time to get all the kinks worked out.” “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will email you all later.”

Model Positivity
“I know this seems like a lot right now but I know that you can do it.” “We will all get the hang of this soon.”

Provide Tips for Online Education
For many students, and faculty, online education is relatively new. Students and faculty alike may need specific strategies to enhance their experience with online or hybrid education. For example, those working from home may benefit from the following:

  • Set up a private, quiet space dedicated to work
  • Let others at home know that you will be busy during certain times
  • Try to set a regular schedule for classes, homework, and other tasks to reduce stress and increase productivity
  • Reduce distractions as much as possible by turning off text and message notifications, closing websites that are not related to your work, and not having videos or TV shows playing while you work

Find Ways to Help Students Calm Down
If you find your class becoming agitated during a discussion, try leading students in a relaxation exercise (e.g., “Lets all take a few deep breaths … “inhale for 1, 2, 3, 4 … exhale for 1, 2, 3, 4”) or encouraging them to take 5 minutes to stretch or walk around their room to calm down.

Reach Out to a Student in Distress
If you recognize that a student is in distress, reach out to them one on one. Find a private time to communicate, note what you observed (e.g., “You were more quiet than usual today in class—it made me wonder how you’re doing”). The student may wish to talk to you about how they are, or they may not. If you are concerned about a student’s safety or mental health (e.g., you notice a dramatic change in their appearance or behavior, they mention thoughts of suicide or hopelessness), refer them to Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) or call CAPS yourself to consult with a therapist about the student (415-422-6352 during business hours; 855-531-0761 evenings, weekends, and holidays). Follow up with the student later and ask if they got help or need anything else.

Collaborate with Your Students
As online and hybrid education may be new for many, it can help to work collaboratively with your students to enhance the experience:

  1. Co-construct your class, giving students some input.
  2. Survey students about how the tools and platform you are using are working.
  3. Finds ways to accommodate students who can’t join the class at the specified time due to work or family obligations.
  4. Be realistic about your expectations for your students and yourself.
  5. Be familiar with academic, student life, and mental health resources for students so you can share them.
  6. Create opportunities for students to process their concerns and feelings.
  7. Be aware of the needs of students with disabilities and possible accommodations for online and hybrid classes (e.g., captions for videos, accessible format for screener readers).
  8. Assign self-care and model it (e.g., start a lecture with a breathing exercise or discussion of favorite coping strategies).
  9. Embrace and model flexibility.
  10. Provide as much connection as possible, as this will be critical to the continuity of your course and build a sense of community.
  11. Ask your students what they need from you. How can you lower their stress/anxiety? For example, can assignments be streamlined? Can you break complex concepts into smaller modules? Would daily updates versus weekly digests be better? Do students need multiple ways to complete assignments? Can you be transparent about your own struggles so students trust that you’re all in this together? Are you being clear about when and how students can interact with you when you are not on campus? 

Take Care of Yourself

  • Get enough sleep, healthy nutrition, and exercise 
  • Know your healthy and unhealthy coping strategies 
  • Create new structures for your days and weeks
  • Set up an appropriate and private space for work
  • Set limits on your social media usage and media consumption as needed
  • Learn to say no, prioritize, and delegate when possible; this may be more important than ever, as you may be managing different demands from colleagues, administration, family, and others
  • Remember that times are stressful, and perfection is not possible—be kind to yourself
  • Make some time for connecting with others, resting, and doing things that are rejuvenating and meaningful

Get Additional Help
If you need more help, consider reaching out to Human Resources (https://myusf.usfca.edu/human-resources) or to Concern, USF’s Employee Assistance Program (https://www.concernhealth.com/). You can also consult with CAPS if you have questions or concerns about a USF student’s mental or emotional well-being or general questions about student mental health services at USF (415-422-6352 during business hours; 855-531-0761 evenings, weekends, and holidays).


Adapted by USF Counseling & Psychological Services, June 2020, from “Managing student stress during distance learning: how faculty can support their students” handout by Shari Robinson, Ph.D., Director, Psychological and Counseling Services, University of New Hampshire, April 30, 2020.