Back to school fails to meet expectations
Students, faculty grapple with last-minute changes, online courses, safety woes
Markus Lai has sat through orientation, attended his first classes, and is ready for the fall ahead in his new program at Seneca College.
But he still hasn’t set foot on campus this term.
Like a lot of post-secondary students across the country, his entire slate of civil engineering technician courses are online.
“It is disappointing,” Lai said of his fully virtual course load, which requires sitting in front of a computer for “anywhere from about three to six hours a day.”
“It feels quite removed.” It’s a far from normal September at Canadian universities and colleges as students head back to class. Many (in some cases all) courses are still online, despite the hefty tuition fees. Some students are even dealing with last-minute switches to virtual learning.
Others are dissatisfied with the current precautions in place, and not confident that vaccine mandates will be enforced.
The messy start is far from the post-secondary experience they may have imagined, and the official everythingis-fine messaging from administrations.
Seneca College did not respond to a request for comment, but Lai said that all the courses in his program are virtual-only until further notice. That seems to be a pattern for a lot of post-secondary students this September. Although not all courses are online, there are many students, especially in arts programs, who have ended up with an entirely virtual course load.
After starting her post-secondary education online, Ayan Absiye, a second-year political science and international relations student at the University of Toronto, was looking forward to finally gaining the full, traditional campus experience her siblings told stories about. She was scheduled to attend four classes on campus and one online. But recently, her timetable abruptly changed, with all four in-person classes moved to virtual platforms.
“I was excited to meet new people, meet my professors face to face, join clubs, go to sports events, the library,” the 19-year-old said. “There’s so many things I’m missing out on.”
Absiye took days off work in preparation for her in-person classes, and planned her restaurant shifts for the year based on the assumption classes would resume on campus. She has friends who returned to the province from abroad and moved into residence, only to be left
with an unnecessary financial burden after their classes also moved online, Absiye added.
“We were getting several emails that we’re going to be inperson … it’s inconvenient to people managing their time,” she said. “It’s inconsiderate to give us such late notice.”
Meanwhile faculty members are trying to balance safety concerns and their students’ learning experiences.
Terezia Zoric , president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association and an OISE professor, said a “record number” of staff members and professors feel unsafe returning to campus, especially those who teach large classes, with student counts in the triple digits.
Hundreds of faculty and staff members are now “panicked” because the vaccine mandate “isn’t yet up and running,” among other concerns, she said. Parents with children under 12 who can’t be vaccinated are particularly worried, along with those who have immunocompromised family members.
“There has been a chaotic approach. It’s really unfair to students,” Zoric said. “I’m embar- rassed our university hasn’t been more respectful to its students, staff, faculty and librarians to take a more methodical, careful approach.”
Faculty and staff feel “betrayed” by the institution, she added. “We are very eager to return to campus, but only when it’s safe enough to do so. We share that sentiment with students.”
Several schools have also seen incidents of large parties, often involving unmasked students.
Kingston police are cracking down after crowded gatherings at Queen’s University, and made several arrests after another weekend of partying. And amid reports of rowdiness at Western University during orientation week, more serious allegations have also arisen, including several reports of sexual assault that are being investigated by London police.
Experts at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health who serve on the university’s central health and safety committee compiled a checklist of safety guidelines they believe must be met if the administration “wishes to schedule significant in-person activities while COVID-19 remains a public health concern.”
About 55 per cent of the 16,000 course offerings this fall at U of T have been planned for in-person classes, a spokesperson said. Individual academic units, in collaboration with their instructors and teaching staff, are determining what they do in person versus online. Only classrooms that have been upgraded to a minimum of six air changes per hour will be used this term, the spokesperson added.
The gulf between the onpaper and real-life campus experience this year is the subject of a recent open letter to students by University of Guelph Prof. Andrew Hamilton-Wright.
Emails from the university administration over the summer “stressed this idea of a normal campus experience” and that safety on campus would be of the “highest priority,” he said. Yet, concerns remain around transmission and ventilation outside of classrooms, like in hallways, common areas, libraries, cafeterias and bathrooms; an issue echoed by faculty at U of T.
“Now classes are starting, and people are noticing that indeed many of these things people thought might be a problem are a problem, and no one has addressed them,” Hamilton-Wright said.
“You can’t value health and safety and not do anything about health and safety.”
A number of professors have recently decided to change their classes from in-person to online, he added.
Shoshanah Jacobs, an associate professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph, said the university isn’t “checking and verifying” vaccine documentation enough.
Because she has tenure, she was able to make all her courses remote, which she feels is the safest option. But not everyone has this privilege.
University of Guelph spokesperson Deirdre Healey said in an email that the university has strict COVID protocols in place based on public health guidance and anyone intending to access university buildings or facilities must submit proof of vaccination or receive an approved exemption request, through the vaccination proof and exemption system.
Jacobs also said that there are hundreds of students left looking for a place to safely social distance on campus for virtual classes that are right before or after in-person ones.
“This is one of the sort of examples of how they’re passing on all of that responsibility to individuals,” she said.
“Our leaders have been so inflexible and so unwilling to adapt to the current circumstance.”
The library is available and the administration is working on securing spaces in buildings, Healey said.
The vaccine mandate was the first step to responding to the changing Delta situation, but given that it came into effect Sept. 7, faculty who were scheduled to teach in person have the option to go remote until Sept. 28, she added.
Although it does help to juggle full-time work with school, Seneca’s Lai, who has ADHD, said students like him work better in a physical classroom, where they can approach the instructor after class and access campus resources like tutors. It’s also harder to meet people.
He’s still paying full tuition and would like to see fees reduced, to reflect his new reality. But at least, unlike U of T’s Absiye, he knew ahead of time what the plan was.
Thousands of students at the University of Calgary were also surprised to discover their classes had been moved online less than two weeks before the start of school, according to student union president Nicole Schmidt.
University of Calgary spokesperson Michelle Crossland said in an email that the pandemic has forced them to make “difficult decisions on a short time frame.” She added they are working to support affected students, including through eliminating transit and campus recreation fees for those with completely online schedules.
But many had already paid for things like parking passes or even, in the case of international students, travelled across the world and spent thousands on flights “so that they can sit in front of their laptops in a dorm room,” Schmidt said.
“This decision was made without planning ahead and students are paying the price very literally.”
“It is disappointing. It feels quite removed.”
MARKUS LAI STUDENT AT SENECA COLLEGE
“There’s so many things I’m missing out on.”
AYAN ABSIYE STUDENT AT U OF T