COVID-19 has made it harder for high school students to find volunteer placements in the community, with some teens saying the graduation requirement should be waived this year.

Meanwhile other students say they have found new ways to donate their time and effort online.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has reduced the required volunteer hours for those graduating in the 2020-21 school year to 20 hours of community involvement instead of 40 hours.

“The ministry has heard from students about some of the challenges they are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, such as restrictions on in-person volunteering,” Monica Ahmed, senior issues co-ordinator at the Ontario Ministry of Education, said in an email.

No decision has been made about the mandatory community involvement hours for future school years.

The community involvement graduation requirement is meant to encourage students to develop an awareness and understanding of civic responsibility, the role they can play and the contributions they can make.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) has 25 secondary schools with about 7,000 students in Grade 12 each year. The number of graduating students affected by the reduced, required hours of community involvement will not be available until after graduation for the current school year.

Darcy Knoll, communications co-ordinator at the OCDSB, said in an email that community involvement hours fall into one of three categories: not-for-profit, for-profit or other.

“Not-for-profit includes voluntary activities for any not-for-profit institution or foundation that would not [replace a paid worker’s activities]. For-profit includes voluntary activities that are charitable based for any business or organization that would not [replace a paid worker’s activities]. Other includes community support that [a person feels] warrants consideration,” he said.

Ahmed said the community involvement requirement was reduced to provide more flexibility and ensure students are able earn the hours required to graduate. “This recognizes that graduating students have had barriers to earning their community involvement hours last school year, and there may be continued barriers this school year,” she said.

For instance, with non-essential businesses shut down during the pandemic, including in the latest lockdown announced Monday, many organizations are not accepting volunteers.

Student volunteers

In her final year at Sir Robert Borden High School, Elana Blechman said that she hasn’t been able to secure volunteer placements.

“Personally, a lot of my volunteering hours came through helping out at my synagogue, [doing] weekly services, Shabbat and that kind of stuff,” she said in a telephone interview. “Now, because of social gathering restrictions, I’m not able to do a lot, or have the same opportunities, because [the synagogue] is closed.”

Rohan Deshpande, another Grade 12 student at Borden, said in an email that a major challenge he faces in finding volunteer opportunities is ensuring his own personal health and safety. With COVID-19 in the community, Deshpande said high school students should not be required to volunteer at all at the moment.

“A lot of the online volunteering opportunities that I found were not available for high school students, so it has taken me a lot longer to find opportunities,” he said. “A lot of the in-person opportunities also seem unsafe to me given the current situation.”

Deshpande gave up a volunteering opportunity at Granata Music in the first week of March, as he chose to follow Ottawa Public Health (OPH) recommendations such as staying and/or working at home, and not having visitors who weren’t part of one’s own household.

Volunteer Ottawa has released public tips about the health and safety protocols for volunteers during COVID-19. [Graphic © Jen Siushansian/Capital Current]

Deshpande said if the vaccine isn’t widely available in the new year, it shouldn’t be necessary for high school students to volunteer.

Nick Healey is also a Grade 12 student at Borden. He said in an email that having the mandatory community involvement requirement lowered to 20 hours was a generally good idea to keep people safe.

“It reduced the amount of time that people have to spend out in public, meaning there’s a lower chance of catching COVID from another person,” he said. 

Healey said, while it is necessary for high school students to volunteer, since the community needs help in some areas (such as at food banks and with snowsuit fundraisers), a lot of students, including himself, feel they are putting someone else’s health at risk by doing so.

Virtual volunteers

He said the OCDSB should recommend that students volunteer, but not make it mandatory.

Healey found a way to volunteer by pursuing a passion of his: tutoring, which he can do online.

“I did not want to risk catching COVID while volunteering and had to look for alternate virtual methods of getting my hours completed,” he said. “So, I’ve gotten into an opportunity I’ve always wanted to try – tutoring – which I would not have even considered if not for COVID-19.”

Myriam Hamza, a third-year student at the University of Ottawa, said in an email she founded her volunteer campaign, Dear PenPal, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our goal is to send letters to the senior citizens of Ottawa in the hopes of alleviating some of the loneliness that must have arisen from the pandemic,” she said.

Hamza said her motivation was to provide comfort and a personal connection to long-term care residents who, before the pandemic, might have had in-person visits from loved ones.

“With the current virus situation, many of the long-term care homes in the area had to isolate themselves from visitors,” Hamza said. “We try to ease some of their stress by providing letters of positivity and happiness to someone who might be feeling isolated.”

Hamza said Dear PenPal can also help ease a high school student’s stress in securing a volunteer placement because all of its volunteers are able to work from their own homes.

“All our volunteering is done from home. Volunteers can write their letters from anywhere they choose, at whatever times they choose, so there’s lots of flexibility if they have jobs or have to isolate for health reasons,” she said.

“Students still need to track their own hours, but they can email us the volunteer sheet for us to sign, so everything is completely virtual.”