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COVID-19: updates for January 2022

BY UA/AU | JAN 31 2022

February 2, 2022

Returning to in-person learning prompting petitions, walkouts

Several universities in Ontario returned to campus or began a phased reproach to a full return on Jan. 31, causing concern among students and staff. The Toronto Star reported that students in the province felt “forced” to begin in-person learning, regardless of their personal risk profile or if they are financially able to do so. At Lakehead University, the student union is calling to eliminate the prospect of in-person learning until the end of the winter term in a petition that has been signed by more than 2,000 people. Students and faculty at Ryerson University have also written an open letter asking for an online option this term.

““With merely two months left in this semester when the school plans to reopen, it is worthless to put students through this much work … I plead to Ryerson University to stay online for the remainder of winter semester and make more informed and data-based decisions in the future,” wrote mechanical engineering student Jwalit Bharwani, according to Global News.

Although the letter has over 11,000 signatures, Ryerson administrators are not backing down, citing the fact that the return to in-person learning will be program and faculty-specific and that a full return isn’t expected until Feb. 28.

A similar story is unfolding at the University of Waterloo, where a grassroots campaign has written a letter to administrators arguing that in-person instruction will “result in the immediate increased risk of illness, hospitalization, and possibly death, of students, staff, and faculty at the university,” according to The Record.

In Quebec, where tensions have been rising between staff and students and their institutions, more boycotts are expected, according to CTV News. At Concordia, 78 per cent of students say they don’t feel ready to return to campus, which is planned on Feb. 3, while at McGill University, the law student’s association has joined the school of social work and education graduate students in refusing to return. Student unions at both universities are also spending thousands to purchase N95 masks, said CBC News, a safety measure they say is the responsibility of the universities.

On the East Coast, Memorial University students are staging a virtual walkout to protest the return to campus, while 360 lecturers and research fellows are hoping to “bring their employer back to the table” in negotiations over pay by threatening a strike.

January 26, 2022

Many universities returning to in-person learning Jan. 31, causing concern among some

The on-again, off-again nature of universities’ in-person learning plans are the source of some frustration across Canada this week, with many universities maintaining that they will return to campus next Monday.

McGill University has responded to safety concerns from students and staff, saying that the approach is “nuanced” and that instructors can teach 20 per cent present of their courses remotely, according to CTV News. Students returned on Jan. 24, prompting the school of social work to go on strike.

In Ontario, the University of Ottawa, the University of Guelph and Western University will return to in-person learning on Jan. 31 in a phased approach based on class and activity size. Carleton University, however, has elected to return to campus on Feb. 7 “to give everyone additional time to prepare,” according to a statement from the president and vice-chancellor. The University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo have chosen Feb. 7 as well.

About 40 students staged a walkout in protest of Simon Fraser University’s decision to have students return on Jan. 24, as reported by CTV News. Catherine Dauvergne, the university’s provost, said she recognizes the anxiety and concerns of students but that there Is an “irreplaceable value to in-person learning” and students have options available to them should they not want to attend class. The University of British Columbia will be returning on Feb. 7.

On the East Coast, Memorial University students and staff are heading back on Jan. 31, despite concerns from both groups that doing so in unsafe. Dalhousie University is following suit, while the University of Prince Edward Island plans to continue remote learning until Feb. 27.

Student athletes go pro

CBC News reported this week that some athletes in Nova Scotia are choosing to play professionally following the suspension of the university hockey season in Atlantic Canada.

A trickle-down effect stemming from the NHL’s worry about cancelled games has caused the league to “pack its roster” with back-up players from the lower professional leagues, creating space for student athletes to move up a rung. “[With] NHL players not being able to play, AHL players get called up, and then East Coast League players get called up into the AHL,” said Tim Maloney, executive director of athletics at Dalhousie. Mr. Maloney says that there are more professional opportunities for hockey players “arguable than ever before,” and that the uncertainty from COVID-19 is forcing both students and coaches to make tough decisions.

January 19, 2022

Return to campus shifts across the country, splitting opinion on what’s best for students

There are early signs that the highly contagious Omicron variant may reach its peak in Ontario in the coming weeks, according to CBC News, but the expected pressure on the province’s hospital system has prompted some universities to further push back their return-to-campus dates.

This was the reasoning behind the University of Waterloo’s continuation of online learning until Feb. 7, according to a statement from administrators. Western University, however, has delayed the return to campus for first-year students to Feb. 28 while upper-year students will return on Jan. 31. The decision did not sit well with new students, who launched a petition to reverse it, arguing that remote learning is having a negative impact on their mental health. A second petition was initiated by Western students holding the opposite view: that class should remain online to reduce the spread of Omicron.

“Obviously, we recognize people are divided in their opinion,” John Doerksen, Western’s acting provost and vice-president, academic told CTV News. “We’re just hoping that a measured plan will see us through the academic year and ensure the best possible teaching and learning experiences for our communities.”

The three affiliate colleges at Western have chosen to welcome all students back to campus on Jan. 31, as reported by the Toronto Star, falling in line with other Ontario institutions including the University of Toronto, Wilfred Laurier University, and the University of Windsor.

Meanwhile, Alberta’s COVID-19 infections are at an all-time high, with projections indicating new records for hospitalizations could surpass previous peaks in the coming weeks. The province’s postsecondary institutions have delayed in-person learning for at least another six weeks, according to the Calgary Herald, and the University of Lethbridge is facing demands from students to move the entire semester online and to issue refunds for those living in university residences.

The University of British Columbia is following the same pattern, delaying its return until at least Feb. 7. Simon Fraser University, however, intends to resume classes on Jan. 24 despite pleas and petitions from students to push the date back.

McGill in hot water over student safety, facing demands and student strikes

McGill University is asking students to return to in-person learning on Jan. 24, while Concordia hopes to welcome back students on Feb. 3. Both universities are facing criticism from students and teachers, according to Global News. Tensions escalated between McGill students and their institution late last week, when an internal document was shared with CBC News indicating that teaching staff should be prepared for “more illness among students and increased rates of absenteeism” upon the on-campus return. This led to outrage from student groups, with the students’ society of McGill issuing a rare plea to instructors:

“It has become clear that McGill is unwilling to take steps towards student safety, and administration has made it clear that they expect a great deal of student and instructor absenteeism,” reads the statement, released on Jan. 17. “Simply put, instructors are our last hope for a safe semester. As such, we are asking instructors to please do everything that you can to make classes accessible to students remotely.”

That evening, undergraduates in the McGill school of social work voted in an overwhelming majority to go on strike, refusing to attend in-person learning until at least Feb. 25.

January 12, 2022

Student athletes pushed to the sidelines

Ontario’s COVID-19 public health measures, which took effect on Jan. 5, have dealt a blow to university athletes across the province. Under the new restrictions, gyms and indoor recreational sport facilities are closed with the exception of those training for the Olympics, Paralympics and in certain professional and “elite amateur” sport leagues. CBC News reported that the exclusion of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and Ontario Colleges Athletic Association from the “elite” designation led to an outcry from student athletes, coaches and advocates.

“The notion that the hard-working student-athletes, who have long strived toward the goal of competing at the post-secondary level and proudly representing one of the OUA’s 20 member institutions in the sport they love, aren’t considered elite by the Government of Ontario is a disservice to the dedication, commitment, and talent that they continue to show on a day-to-day basis,” reads a statement released by the OUA following the news.

Alexandra Adamo, press secretary to Premier Doug Ford, told CBC News that the decision was based on guidance from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Kieran Moore. The ban on indoor sports activities is in place until Jan. 27.

Universities weigh return to in-person learning

Ontario universities welcomed students back to online learning courses on Jan. 10, kicking off the Winter 2022 semester. The rapid rise of the Omicron variant, however, has delayed in-person learning until at least Jan. 24, and in some cases Jan. 31, at many universities across the province. The Toronto Star’s Nadine Yousif has reported that the expectation that students return to campus in the weeks ahead is causing anxiety and uncertainty, particularly for those living in residences.

In Quebec, the provincial government has maintained that postsecondary institutions are not sources of COVID-19 outbreaks and has urged universities to return on Jan. 17. But most have opted to take advantage of the two-week grace period granted by the province, further delaying the return to campus. Meanwhile, CTV News has reported that McGill University has suspended its COVID-19 rapid test pilot project to align with the government directive that tests be saved for symptomatic individuals.

Most universities in British Columbia have also chosen to push back their return-to-campus dates, prompting petitions from students at BCIT, Langara College and Douglas College demanding that their institutions follow suit, according to CTV News. The Chronicle Herald in Halifax reported a similar appeal launched by Memorial University students concerned with the safety of attending in-person this semester. In Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and other postsecondary institutions have announced that online learning will continue for the first three weeks of January.

Internationally trained nurses stepping in

Immediate staffing shortages in health-care facilities across the country are galvanizing internationally trained nurses living in Canada to return to work. On Jan. 12, CTV News reported that 1,200 of the nearly 15,000 internationally educated nurses in Ontario who are not practising in their field will be filling roles at hospitals and long-term care homes. The B.C. Nurses Union is also calling for a simplification of its certification process for internationally educated nurses.

January 5, 2022

VIU postpones classes

Vancouver Island University is delaying its Spring 2022 in-person learning to Jan. 10. “The increase and sudden surge of the Omicron variant is dynamic and fluid,” said VIU in a statement. “We are delaying the start of classes to give our Health and Safety team time to reinforce our current safety protocols and implement any additional measures if needed. Our priority is to keep our staff, faculty, and students safe.” Despite the delay, the campus was opened on Jan. 4 so that students have access to services.

UWaterloo pushes back start date for in-person classes

The University of Wateloo will be resuming in-person learning later than it originally anticipated, due to the announcement by the provincial government that Ontario will be returning to a modified version of Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen. “Before the winter break we moved most teaching and learning online until January 24, and we asked all employees who can work from home to do so until the same date. To align with the government direction, we will extend these arrangements until January 27,” the university said in a statement. “We know that for many people, returning to the campus is a necessity – even while most of our community learns and works remotely. This means that for people in the highest risk roles and situations who work on our campus we are working to obtain more rapid antigen tests and we continue to procure medical-grade masks that are available through Central Stores.”

Online learning isn’t all bad, says Toronto Star columnist

Recently, Toronto Star columnist Uzma Jalaluddin wrote about how the pandemic may actually have some positive outcomes for university students. She spoke to her niece who is in her fourth year at the University of Waterloo, who said “I’m not fighting for information, struggling to get the bare minimum. When you’re in a class setting, there are so many factors that affect your ability to obtain and retain information. It could be the layout of the class: is there a blackboard, is there a projector? Where are you sitting, are you beside people who are noisy? And if you have a class before, you’re running across campus. These are significant problems but they are understated, because (it’s assumed) that’s just what being a student is. But I disagree. It’s really just the flaws of the system that are unlikely to be addressed […] Having everything online makes it a lot easier for me. I have access to notes and I don’t need to worry, I’m able to go through everything. In addition, having online office hours has been a game changer.”

Ms. Jalaluddin goes on to say that she recognizes that many professors were forced to become more tech savvy, but it has also given them an opportunity to think about how to present their course material in a more effective manner.

“One thing is clear: school is changing in Ontario and around the world, and there is no sign that things will return to how they used to be; both for better and for worse, education is changing before our eyes,” she wrote.

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