Back to Back-to-School: Navigating a Return to In-Person Learning

Author: Taylor Nelles-McGee

Over the past year and a half, pandemic restrictions have forced us to completely rethink how we conduct research, engage with our labmates, and engage in our own education. This has required a great deal of creativity, flexibility, and resilience in the face of uncertainty, stress, and fear.


A return to in-person and hybrid work models are exciting for several reasons; we may get to see our colleagues and friends in-person, limit Zoom fatigue, and hopefully see an uptick in the pace of research projects that have been delayed due to the pandemic. On the other hand, returning to in-person meetings and work brings a great deal of uncertainty. Many students may even be fearful of returning to in-person activities.


It is important that we pace ourselves and ensure that we approach this “new normal” with the tools we need to succeed, not only in our work and education, but in self-compassion and patience. This will look different for everybody, but we have compiled some key ideas below to help support this transition.

Know the facts


  • Stay up-to-date on school and/or lab policies as well as government restrictions for your region
  • Understand what symptoms to look out for, what constitutes an exposure to COVID-19, and get tested if necessary. All that information, including how to find a testing centre is available here
  • If you have regular lab meetings or classes and are concerned with COVID-19 safety in the lab, request that a regular COVID policy update be added to meetings (or via email) to go over changes in personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols, contact tracing, etc

Prioritize communication

  • Take some time to think about what YOU are comfortable with and communicate this with friends, family, and labmates. Just because others might be comfortable with an unmasked indoor gathering doesn’t mean you have to be. There are lots of ways to work around differences in comfort level if everyone practices good communication. Comfort levels change all the time, so this conversation should be ongoing! Here is a great resource that provides guidance for speaking to others who may hold different views on various COVID-related issues
  • Speak to your supervisor if you are uncomfortable with certain activities or find yourself in a position that feels unsafe. You may find others are feeling similarly, and they may be able to help you find a solution

Take care of yourself

  • We know how damaging long-term stress can be. As such, it is important that we continue to employ tools to manage stressors. After almost 2 years apart and with projects picking back up again, it will be tempting to dive headfirst into work. Pace yourself. A return to in-person work is a big change, and stress levels remain high. While productivity hacks such as pomodoros and time-blocking may help get you back into the swing of things, it is equally important to schedule time to rest and recuperate
  • Regulating stress levels can also mean prioritizing self-care tasks such as meditation, therapy, exercise, and time with friends. Whatever this looks like for you, make sure you are getting adequate time to recharge. In past issues, we have covered mental health resources available to graduate students, as well as COVID-19 related health, mental-health, academic, financial, and coping resources here and here.

Transitions are difficult. Transitions in the face of a public health crisis even more so. We hope that these suggestions provide some tools to help navigate the changing COVID landscape, and that everyone has a safe, happy, and healthy return to in-person learning this year.


Note: While this piece was in progress, McMaster released an article by Katrina Spotts in their Back to Mac update with a similar focus. It offers some valuable insights and recommendations for promoting mental health during this transition. You can read that article here.