Canadian students want clearer communication and more certainty from universities

For international student Abigia Debebe, who moved to Calgary from Ethiopia in August 2021, studying in a new country has been a “dark” experience. She was originally supposed to take in-person classes, but some of her classes were later moved online, which meant a semester of solitary lectures watched from her dorm.

In late December, the 19-year-old University of Calgary computer science major learned via email that would continue, with classes conducted entirely virtually until the end of January.

Then on Friday the school pushed back that date – in-person classes are now due to start on February 28.

Debebe says she understands universities and their administration are under immense pressure, given the unpredictability of the pandemic.

“But I believe that’s part of the job. It’s about looking ahead, weighing the risks and finding the best possible solution in time.”

The wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by Omicron has upended Canadian universities and their students: While many schools were optimistic about an in-person semester start this month, the sudden turn of the pandemic forced them to go back to square one, putting classes back online.

But the students are agitated and frustrated by what they see as the school’s prevarication.

In a lengthy statement to CBC News, the University of Calgary said the school had to make decisions “based on the fluid and changing local and global dynamics of the COVID-19 situation.” He said he communicates regularly with the community “to allow for as much notice as possible”.

feel in limbo

Jayani Patel is a third-year student at Ryerson University. Before the school announced it would return to online learning in January, Patel was looking forward to what she called “a fresh start”. (Submitted by Jayani Patel)

The pandemic hit just as Jayani Patel, now a third-year English student, was finishing her freshman year at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her classes have been fully online since then, she said. Until the university announced in mid-December that classes would be held online until Jan. 30 to limit the spread of the Omicron variant, it was ready to go back in person.

“I was ready for a fresh start,” Patel said. Now, she would prefer the semester to be taught online from start to finish — and school to be in person next year, so students like her can enjoy a clean slate. She hopes to celebrate her college graduation with her peers, family and friends.

The school announced in October that it was planning a “significant increase” in campus activities at the start of the new semester, telling students that the majority of classes would be held in person. But in December, Ontario’s healthcare system was hit by the Omicron wave, and Ryerson said it would instead take a measured approach, which includes holding online classes from Jan. 7 until at least Jan. 31. .

For Patel, communication back and forth from school is akin to being in “limbo, figuring out whether or not we’ll actually be able to learn in person,” she explained.

Ryerson did not respond to a timely request for comment from CBC News.

“They didn’t really follow a plan”

Amin Montazeri, a fifth-year student at the University of Manitoba, said the fluctuation between delivery styles has been rocky for students. “It’s all up in the air, but we’re trying to make the most of it.” (Submitted by Amin Montazeri)

“I really feel for people who have to go through this for the first time, or even the second time,” said Amin Montazeri, an international student from Iran. Now in her fifth year at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Montazeri said the winter 2020 semester was a “nightmare.”

The fluctuation between delivery styles has been hectic for students, the kinesiology major said. Classes were also blocked for five weeks last fall by a teachers’ strike, with union members vying for higher salaries to help recruit and retain staff.

The school said it would make up for missed class time by extending the fall semester into December and the winter semester into April. A few weeks later, he announced that a move to virtual was also underway, with in-person classes resuming on February 26 after a winter break.

“But who can guarantee that on the face of it? The fact that they didn’t really stick to a plan…it adds to the ambiguity of it all,” Montazeri said.

As a student coordinator with Community Engaged Learning at the University, Montazeri often works with incoming, domestic and international students as they adjust to campus life. “That’s a lot,” especially for the second class of students who spend most of their college experience online, he said.

“It’s all up in the air, but we’re trying to make the most of it.”

In a statement to CBC News, a representative from the University of Manitoba said the school recognizes the university community’s desire for clarity.

“We hope to be able to return to campus after the winter break (February 26), but it is too early to make that decision.”

Moving online is necessary, but so is transparency

“I think staying online is fundamentally in the best interests of students, staff and faculty,” said Katelynn Kovalchuk, master’s student at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted by Katelynn Kovalchuk)

Katelynn Kowalchuk, a master’s student in political science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has postponed her studies until September 2021 so that she can fully enjoy the university experience. She was lucky, with all of her classes last semester taught in person.

She said she felt some resentment over UBC’s recent decision to deliver most classes online until January 24 – which was later changed to February 7 – but thinks the move from virtual learning school was the right thing to do.

“There are still a lot of unknowns about the current wave of Omicron, and I believe staying online is fundamentally in the best interests of students, staff and faculty to keep everyone safe.”

When reached for comment, a UBC representative said the decision to continue online learning until Feb. 7 was made after “extensive” consultation with students, faculty and unions. . Programs such as dentistry, law, performing arts and experiential applied science programs offer in-person instruction, the spokesperson said.

Kowalchuk, who is from Regina, expected UBC to offer most courses online. But she laments that many of the school’s decisions are being made in two-week increments: rather than announcing that a full month of school will take place online, UBC has opted to make plans bit by bit.

“I guess my position is just between two minds,” Kowalchuk said. “I understand the decision to go online. I think it’s the safest one to make right now.

“But I wish it had been handled in a clearer and more transparent way.”

Schools need to improve mixed messaging, student says

Emma Naphtali is in her fourth year studying cognitive science at McGill University. She wants the university to improve what she calls “mixed messaging” to its students about pandemic safety measures. (Submitted by Emma Naphtali)

Emma Naphtali had a mix of classes offered online and in person last semester, but felt security measures on the McGill University campus left something to be desired. With that in mind, the fourth-year cognitive science major said an imminent return to in-person classes on Jan. 24 was concerning.

“Even though, you know, online school is not fun and not engaging and pretty terrible for the mental health of students in general, it’s going to put a lot of people at risk if we go back in person right now,” Naphtali said.

Masking is also an issue, Naphtali noted. Many students are still wearing cloth masks, she said, despite public health advice to switch to surgical masks or even N-95s. Some wear their mask under their nose or take it off when seated. This is especially a problem in large lecture halls where hundreds of students are seated in tight spaces.

“The only thing I wish they would improve is the mixed messaging because they tell us oh we’re in person, we’re online, we’re in person, we’re online,” said Naphtali, adding that McGill’s efforts to communicate clearly with students have failed.

“Well, a lot of other schools do that too. But the only thing they do is tell us things are safe when they clearly aren’t.”

A McGill University representative told CBC News in a statement that the school will follow a plan to transition to primarily in-person classes on January 24 after provincial guidelines said universities can resume in-person instruction. January 17. statement said McGill “has an excellent track record of keeping our community safe” and that its planning for the winter 2022 semester remains flexible.