Public health officials have informed colleges and universities their best projection is that life in Manitoba will be "near normal" after Labour Day with few, if any, restrictions — a promising sign there could be a robust return to in-class learning on campus this fall.
On Tuesday, infectious disease experts, representatives from the advanced education department, and school presidents met virtually to discuss reopening higher education during the pandemic.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief public health officer, spoke about what is most likely to be the situation in the province during the back-to-school season and addressed planning questions.
"They told us that the most likely scenario for fall is that essentially restrictions will go away and we will be in a near-normal state. So, we are trying to plan for that," said James Currie, interim president and vice-chancellor at the University of Winnipeg. "There's obviously uncertainty, but we are hoping that we will be face to face."
Currie said school leaders were informed that true vaccine escape — meaning the evolution of virus variants renders vaccines less effective — is "extremely unlikely" and the main challenge is boosting vaccine uptake.
When answering questions about public health protocols on campus, Atwal suggested there may be no restrictions, Currie said, noting the doctor indicated if there are capacity limits on classes, they could be 80 per cent or higher.
On the subject of mandatory vaccines, the interim president said challenges with privacy concerns and charter rights were raised at the meeting.
“They told us that the most likely scenario for fall is that essentially restrictions will go away and we will be in a near-normal state. So, we are trying to plan for that.” — James Currie, interim president and vice-chancellor at the University of Winnipeg
In an email sent to staff Wednesday, Currie wrote that it is both reasonable and necessary to plan for a return with the removal of social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and other restrictions.
A mix of remote and in-class learning is still expected at University of Winnipeg to some degree, as it is on other campuses; that ratio will depend on the institution.
Red River College’s blended model will be adjusted to expand services, supports and activities on campus based on public health directives. The blended delivery of its programs for the fall will remain unchanged.
Brandon University will only hold classes on campus if there are fewer than 25 attendees.
"Every student would love to be back in-person in September, but this announcement was made two months ago," said Brendan Scott, president of the U of M’s students union, noting the school requires time to plan.
Scott said the student union is hopeful it will be able to run events on campus around Thanksgiving, even if students are still mainly learning at home, so students can start to readjust to lively campus life.
There are mixed feelings among educators at the U of W when it comes to a robust fall return, said Peter Miller, president of the school’s faculty association. Some are "chomping at the bit" — Miller included — to get back onto campus, while others have serious safety concerns, he said, adding no faculty member will be forced to return.
Approximately half of the courses in the classics department, which Miller chairs, are expected to be in-person.
While the potential of a full return may seem "mind-blowing" amid this devastating third wave, a lot can change in three months, said Currie.
During the Tuesday meeting, Atwal was joined by Dr. Joss Reimer, who has been overseeing the vaccine rollout, Dr. Marcia Anderson of the First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team, and Dr. Pierre Plourde, medical officer of health with Winnipeg’s health authority.
Conversations about reopening plans are ongoing between the department, public health and post-secondary leaders.
Institutions are making preparations to resume in-class activity, but ultimately, a full or partial return to in-class learning will be based on public health recommendations, said Wayne Ewasko, minister of advanced education, who attended the meeting, in a statement Wednesday.
Ewasko added, "We are actively encouraging all students, faculty, and post-secondary staff to get vaccinated, in order for everyone to return safely back to the classroom."
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.