Campuses re-evaluate classroom-return plans Students, administrators express frustration over another semester of uncertainty

The University of Winnipeg’s call to continue operating online for the rest of the winter semester is setting up a familiar domino effect, as post-secondary campuses across the province reconsider their COVID-19 reopening plans for the umpteenth time.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/02/2022 (417 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The University of Winnipeg’s call to continue operating online for the rest of the winter semester is setting up a familiar domino effect, as post-secondary campuses across the province reconsider their COVID-19 reopening plans for the umpteenth time.

The release of public-health projections on the Omicron variant late last year prompted school leaders to announce lectures and labs that do not require in-person components would begin virtually in 2022.

At the time, senior administration at the U of W — the first school to make an announcement about reverting to e-learning during the fourth wave — indicated the remote period would be re-evaluated by the end of January.

“It’s hard on people’s mental health, to not get out of the house and to not have a place to go to every day. Some students became university students when the pandemic was ongoing and they’ve barely been on campus, and a lot of students feel like they’re not getting the full university experience,” said Kirt Hayer, president of the U of W students’ association.

The 26-year-old psychology student, however, said most of his peers understand that safety has to come first and support their school’s latest decision to stick it out with online learning until springtime.

The U of W emailed its community members a survey last month to assess comfort levels around resuming face-to-face instruction after a reading week at the end of February.

Nearly 80 per cent of student respondents — approximately 5,220 learners, or 55 per cent of the total pupil population — said they would prefer continuing with remote learning throughout this semester, according to U of W. Seventy per cent of participants in the staff and faculty poll, which had a response rate of 69 per cent among approximately 1,200 university employees, felt similarly.

Chris Minaker, associate vice-president of strategic communications and external relations, said it was important to the school to understand the views of students, staff and faculty — which administrators were “somewhat surprised by” — before making a decision.

In the Monday announcement, interim university president James Currie wrote that he both recognizes some people will be disappointed that they cannot come back to campus sooner and that he, too, is frustrated about continuous pandemic disruptions.

The timeline for a return to pre-COVID-19 campus activity continues to be pushed back across the province. Before Omicron arrived in Manitoba, many academics had early 2022 marked on their calendars.

Red River College Polytech confirmed Tuesday that the institution plans to carry on with online and essential hands-on learning throughout the current term.

Brandon University will continue delivering classes with more than 25 students online, although it has announced a “phased-in” return to in-person instruction for smaller classes, meaning they can remain online for up to another month.

University College of the North delayed the start of its winter term and moved many courses to remote delivery formats.

The University of Manitoba is evaluating its plans for instruction after a study week later this month, “based on the latest public health information.”

Computer science major Brayden Burak said students want “a definitive answer”as soon as possible. As far as the 19-year-old is concerned, the right call is to follow U of W’s lead.

“It’s been almost two years now that we’ve been dealing with these seemingly endless lockdowns and restrictions. It’s been a long time. A lot of students are nervous about (returning),” said the first-year student, who has yet to attend an in-person lecture at U of M. “I don’t believe that that adjustment period should be right in the middle of a term.”

The prospect of more than 30,000 students returning to campus during mid-term season is causing anxiety, especially for new students who will be nervous about a combination of test-taking, navigating campus and avoiding Omicron, he said.

Burak noted that some international students are also currently studying remotely outside of the country and need time to organize travel.

U of M’s faculty association echoed those sentiments Tuesday.

Citing the current COVID-19 situation and the school’s limited plan, “It won’t be safe or responsible to be bringing classes back en masse by the end of this month,” said Orvie Dingwall, who represents upwards of 1,200 professors, instructors and librarians.

Dingwall said academics are advocating for the school to change its definition of “fully vaccinated” so only individuals who have received a third-dose booster are able to attend campus, ensure N95 masks and microphones are widely available to instructors and install CO2 monitors to assess air quality in real time when buildings are bustling.

The school is currently supplying community members with medical-grade masks and requires all visitors, including students and staff in limited in-person courses, to have received two vaccine doses to attend campus.

Between Jan. 5 and 25, there were 107 positive cases on U of M campuses. There were no more than three cases reported in all of January 2021.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.


Updated on Tuesday, February 1, 2022 7:48 PM CST: fixes typo

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