First-year students at Western University are fuming over the school’s decision to let upper-years return to in-person learning before them.
While Western upper-year students will be allowed back on campus two weeks from now, first-years will have to continue distance-learning until Feb. 28. This will not be the case at other universities, including Dalhousie, McGill, Waterloo, Concordia, York, University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, all of which plan for their students to return to in-person classes at the same time.
This was an unwelcome surprise to Western first-year Chloe Vanderlugt and her peers. On Friday, she joined more than 2,400 signatories of a petition to reverse the school’s decision, which states being kept off campus will harm first-year students’ mental health.
As well as having to continue online learning, the students will also not be allowed to live in university residences until the end of February. In other universities, residences are either open or will reopen once in-person school returns, either in late January or early February, depending on the school.
“There are a lot of angry first-year students,” said Vanderlugt. “Although we were aware that, at any given moment, school could go online, we weren’t aware that residence would also be taken away from us.”
To Vanderlugt, living is residence is key to comfort and success at school. It gives access to campus amenities such as libraries and study rooms to students who would otherwise live too far away to use them.
“We feel that this decision unfairly targets first-year students,” she said. “We’re especially upset because, when we look at other universities, they’re allowing students to live in residences. It’s hard seeing that we’re the only ones in this situation.”
The fact most first-year students live in residence is exactly why Western decided to keep them off campus.
Residences have “shared spaces and washrooms that increase the risk of (COVID) transmission,” a Western spokesperson told the Star, and “will not meet self-isolation requirements if substantial numbers of students are required to isolate.”
In a statement, John Doerksen, Western’s acting provost and vice-president of academics, said the school is aware there is “divided opinion on this approach based on personal circumstances.” However, he said, it is the “best way to ensure we will be able to finish out the rest of the winter term with in-person, on-campus learning.”
Western’s University Students’ Council (USC), a student-led organization, said it finds the school’s phased return plan concerning, and has been meeting with the university to share student feedback.
“While the USC acknowledges the safety concerns in residences, we do think this poses an additional disruption to first-year students which will affect their student experience differently than upper-year students,” said USC spokesperson Callista Ryan.
The students are all vaccinated.
Epidemiologist Colin Furness’s view is that the benefit of reducing transmission outweighs the potential negative impact the plan might have on first-year students.
“I can see how this would be perceived as a disruption,” said Furness. “At the same time, university residences — like any congregate setting — just aren’t safe at the height of a very infectious wave of a dangerous virus. We hope that Omicron doesn’t cause substantial loss of brain tissue like previous variants, but we don’t yet know. Being cautious makes sense and it may reduce future liability on the part of the institution.
“If people understood the safety issues, they may feel less angry. This is the way of flight delays — harder to grumble when the cause of delay is to ensure safety.”
Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn