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In my opinion

What happens in September? Prepare yourselves for ‘Social Distancing U’

COVID-19 will still be very much with us at the start of the fall term, and we need to prepare.


Even while faculty and students are limping through the final weeks of the winter term, September looms. Will we be able to reawaken the rhythms of university life and welcome students back to campus, or will we still be hunkered in our home offices trying to offer orientation over Zoom?

Although they haven’t yet had a chance to look up from their current crisis management activities, university leaders will soon have to make critical decisions about the fall term. These decisions will have repercussions for enrollments, financial viability and reputation for years to come.

As a long-serving faculty member, former senior administrator and parent of university-aged students, my view is that institutions should make every effort to bring students back in person next September, if public health authorities permit. While online education fulfils an important niche in postsecondary offerings, it isn’t a substitute for the face-to-face experience that most students – and faculty – choose.

Fall 2020 is full of uncertainty. If we have managed to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections, we will have gradually regained some of our freedom to move over the summer months. But, public health officials will be wary of a second wave in the fall. Although it might be better managed, and testing should be more readily available, COVID-19 will still be very much with us when the leaves start to turn colour.

To be able to bring students back, universities will have to convince their boards that the risks and costs of staying online outweigh the risks and costs of bringing the students back. They will have to convince students and parents that they have a viable plan that prioritizes health and continuity. And, most important, they will have to convince provincial health officials that they have a comprehensive plan to carry out operations while maintaining social distancing. Start planning now for Social Distancing U, opening September 2020.

Fall 2019 Fall 2020
Move-in day Move-in week
Meet your roommate Meet the student next door
Dining hall buffet Single servings
Orientation kick-off in the gym; concerts; parties Program-focused orientation, small-group format
Health center distributing condoms Health center distributing face masks
600 students in Psych 100 Flipped delivery of Psych 100, small group tutorials

The fundamental rules of Social Distancing U will be familiar to all of us by fall. No handshakes. No hugs. No gatherings of more than 50 people. Food service that’s heavy on packaging. Wash your hands. Check for fever. Self-isolate if required. Wear a mask if you have a cold. Can we operate universities without violating these rules?

One of the hot spots for Social Distancing U will be the residences. Traditional dorms, with shared rooms, common bathrooms and open dining halls have been described as land-based cruise ships from a public-health perspective. Double rooms will have to be converted to singles. The numbers of students using shared bathrooms will have to be reduced. Cleaning of common areas will have to be increased. The friendly cafeteria worker swiping student ID will have to be joined by a health worker with a thermometer asking about symptoms. Some residence floors will need to be set aside for students to self-isolate if they show symptoms. Residences will not be profit centers or revenue-neutral. They will be expensive to run. But, without them, many in the class of 2024 won’t come.

How do we preserve what is good about face-to-face instruction if there can never be more than 50 people in a room? Lecture theaters will have to be temporarily remodelled, with every second seat and every other row blocked off. Classroom capacity will be significantly reduced. Large lecture courses will need to move to a flipped delivery method or broadcast online to the students who can’t be seated in the lecture hall. To get the benefit of face-to-face delivery, faculty members will need to devise tutorials, rotating in-person attendance, or creative ways to go beyond the virtual. Teaching assistants will be even more important to the undergraduate experience than they were before.

How do we launch the fall term, knowing there is a non-trivial chance that a second wave might dislocate the term? The key will be contingency planning – hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Every course outline should be designed with an “in case of emergency” plan, setting out how material will be delivered, how assignments and exams will change, and how communication between instructors and students will occur. Every student living in residence must know the procedures in the event of a decision to close the facilities.

Thinking about the need for extra measures, reorganizing classes and making contingency plans, we’re left to wonder whether it’s worthwhile to try for an in-person fall term at all. I’d argue it is. If universities stay online, enrolments will go down, making a bad financial situation worse. Students unprepared for online learning will struggle to start their postsecondary education. Graduate students will abandon research in large numbers.

For students currently in university, or preparing to enter university next year, entry into the labour market will be exceptionally difficult. Canada’s universities must devise creative solutions to the challenges COVID-19 presents to their operations to help prepare these students to play a role in the economic and social recovery that will be required.

Lisa Young is a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. From 2011 to 2018, she was vice-provost and dean of graduate studies at the university.

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  1. Jeanne Phene / April 11, 2020 at 11:11

    Thank-you for writing this. I am a senior citizen (Open Studies) and have been taking undergraduate courses (STATS 213, COMMS 201, GEOG 315, etc. ) to refresh and connect with a younger cohort who are not obliged to agree or disagree on principle with a parent. It has been rewarding to connect (a bit) with a different cohort as a fellow student in the ‘same boat’. Now all the world is in the ‘same boat’. I am hoping by Spring 2021 there will be a vaccine and there will be a Sociology or Geography course I will be allowed to take with younger classmates to reflect critically on these days. Maybe even a Masters on this stuff in the future, eh? Stay well, stay safe, stay home, use your good judgement hat.

  2. Ethel / April 11, 2020 at 13:49

    Lisa, one wonders if a different policy solution is needed.
    Current trajectory is to social isolate everyone…even those least likely to suffer adverse affects by shutting down economy. Waiting for a vaccine is nonsensical especially if we don’t want to skip the usual clinical trial phase not to mention the view of who wants to be the guinea pig for an unknown vaccine (even I have trouble signing the waiver for the annual influenza form, and that has gone through years of clinical trials) and finally how will we actually vaccinate 33M CDNS and then 8B in a global economy.

    Maybe policy direction should be quarantine for 70+ individuals, social isolation and masks for 60-70 and then move to herd vaccine for the rest. That means back to normal for the vast majority of people in the economy. While some will get sick (and maybe die) the numbers will be no different than with influenza.
    Thus, open up the unviersity to classes and get back to business.
    Just wondering what you think.

  3. Richard Spavin / April 14, 2020 at 11:38

    It’s interesting that there is nothing said about student debt and the financial risk that they will be taking on when you argue for an in-person fall session. It’s fine to argue about the universities financial interest, but what about the students’? Shouldn’t there be a link here or something that addresses their concerns?

  4. Paul Harrison / April 14, 2020 at 22:56

    From a science perspective, I fully endorse every effort to return to normalcy. It is not possible to train a scientist without a lab experience. Virtual labs simply do not compare. Would you use a doctor who had only learned on virtual patients….

  5. Leda Raptis / April 15, 2020 at 18:16

    Very well written piece. I would like to add that, for all of us to be able to become productive again, first we have to know who is infected. That is, test ASYMPTOMATIC people. Studies have shown that 50-80% of infections are from asymptomatic people!!! A recent study of pregnant women in New York city hospitals showed that out of 215 tested, 4 had symptoms and were positive for covid. OK. But, another 29 were positive but totally asymptomatic… That is, out of 31 that can transmit it, a full 87% had NO symptoms, ie they would be missed with the current levels of testing… We can use masks, sit at 2 meters from each other etc, but knowing who is infected is the most effective tool. If we do not know, then we are perhaps a hundred times more careful than we need to be, based on current % of infected people, and then productivity grinds to a halt. Not just for Universities or Canada, but the whole globe!

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