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The University of Manitoba plans to continue e-learning throughout the fall semester — a drastic shift in operations that will have to be made despite a budget shortfall of at least $17.3 million.

The Winnipeg-based centre made back-to-back announcements Wednesday afternoon about the 2020-21 school year, including updates about a remote fall term and the province slashing the school’s operating budget by five per cent (one per cent of which is permanent).

"From the outset of (the COVID-19 pandemic), we said our commitment first and foremost is to our community’s health and safety. We will have a return to campus when the time is right, but right now, we want to stay in line with public health advice," said John Kearsey, vice-president external.

That advice, Kearsey said, indicates the school should plan for all courses to be taught online, although there will be exceptions for limited in-person activities; exceptions will vary between programs.

"We will have a return to campus when the time is right, but right now, we want to stay in line with public health advice," said John Kearsey, vice-president external.

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"We will have a return to campus when the time is right, but right now, we want to stay in line with public health advice," said John Kearsey, vice-president external.

The fall semester is scheduled for Sept. 9 to Jan. 15. While exams will still take place as typical in mid-December, there will be a designated 11-day period (Jan. 5-15), during which additional required hands-on learning will take place.

Kearsey said the term has been padded to accommodate lab-work lessons typically sprinkled throughout a semester on the campus, which typically hosts upwards of 30,000 students.

The broad e-learning plan mirrors those announced by the University of British Columbia, University of Ottawa and McGill University in recent days.

Despite speculation e-learning would also continue at Winnipeg’s largest university, students expressed mixed feelings about the latest development.

"I was supposed to be headed into all my honours courses, which means they’re already difficult to begin with. Now, trying to keep up with homework and deadlines, I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult," said Jennifer Peters, a psychology student headed into her sixth year.

"I was supposed to be headed into all my honours courses, which means they’re already difficult to begin with. Now, trying to keep up with homework and deadlines, I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult." – Psychology student Jennifer Peters

Jelynn Dela Cruz, president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, expressed disappointment on behalf of students who prefer in-person classes, whether they be kinesthetic learners, visual learners or otherwise. The online shift limits options available to students, Dela Cruz said.

At the same time, she said UMSU recognizes the measure is necessary to protect students and other community members on campus.

"With full acknowledgement of the large role that students play in flattening the curve of COVID-19, it’s incredibly important that we’re still accommodating to the students who are, in this digital shift, facing obstacles," she said, noting not all students have access to high-speed internet or reliable devices.

Despite the distance learning changes, the U of M has no plans to reduce its fees, at present.

"Let's be really clear that the university is continuing to offer the courses and there will be additional costs (related to distance learning)," Kearsey said. "It’s really important for our community to understand that."

Kearsey said the term has been padded to accommodate lab-work lessons typically sprinkled throughout a semester on the campus.

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Kearsey said the term has been padded to accommodate lab-work lessons typically sprinkled throughout a semester on the campus.

Also Wednesday, U of M president David Barnard informed the community, in light of provincial funding cuts, the school is considering reducing discretionary spending, deferring hires, offering voluntary work week reductions, and additional layoffs in the 2020-21 budget.

The Manitoba government has asked publicly funded entities to find cost savings to foot the bill for the COVID-19 response. So far, the U of M has issued 455 layoffs, ranging from food services to recreation operations.

Many academics have voiced concerns about how additional cuts will affect students and staff, especially since schools anticipate rising enrolment, owing to economic uncertainty during the pandemic.

"Like all the universities in the province, we need to be firing on all cylinders," said Janet Morrill, president of the U of M Faculty Association, who will resume her position as an associate professor of accounting in September.

"Let's be really clear that the university is continuing to offer the courses and there will be additional costs (related to distance learning)." – John Kearsey

Morill expects preparing for online courses will be time-consuming this summer — so much so, she’s worried the time allotted for research will shrink. While she will be able to teach lectures online, she wonders how her colleagues who teach labs, visual arts and music will be able to adjust — and maintain students' interest.

Campus life will also be an inevitable COVID-19 casualty. "It’s really unfortunate for students that are beginning their first year," said Savannah Szocs, UMSU vice-president student life.

Despite the shift online, Szocs said now is the opportunity to be creative: "We’re working on an online orientation and collaborating with student organizations to virtually welcome (newcomers) in September."

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

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.

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