Should universities be required to provide online learning options?

A petition started by York University students is calling on administrators to offer remote options for all classes in the winter semester. Faiza Amin reports on the changes coming to campus in 2022.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

Many students at universities across the GTA are calling on schools to provide more online learning options for the winter semester.

In light of the new omicron COVID-19 variant and more travel restrictions coming into effect, some say it’s not only unsafe, but extremely costly to force students back into the classrooms.

York University, Ryerson University and University of Toronto Mississauga are among the schools requiring students to return to campus for the majority of their courses offered next semester.

York says approximately 80 per cent of their course will require an in-person component, up from only 3 per cent last summer and 33 per cent in the fall.

A petition that was launched in response to this news has been signed by almost 10,000 students. They are asking York to provide more online options for a variety of reasons.

Some students cite safety concerns while others are international students who don’t believe they should have to move to Toronto in order to attend school for four months.

In a comment on the petition, Maija Goranson said she lives a plane ride away and would have to quickly find a place to stay.

“It would make more sense to start the next school year off in-person instead of making many students struggle to find a place to stay quickly,” Goranson said in her comment. “Not to mention suffer financially because of the unexpected costs of moving that they did not necessarily anticipate. This will cause undue stress on many students.

York confirmed the delivery of various courses on Nov. 19. The winter term begins on Jan. 10, 2022. On their website, it says they are monitoring the omicron variant ahead of the semester as well.

Another signee Tomoe Nakagaki said she feared being in large crowds during the pandemic despite being fully vaccinated. “It’s winter and COVID could increase again. I live with elderly people and I am concerned if I take the virus to the house,” her comment read.

“Many programs will continue offering online courses or components (as they did prior to the start of the pandemic), to accommodate the diverse needs of students and to enrich the student learning experience,” read a statement from York University to CityNews. “We have also learned a great deal about technology-enhanced learning over these past 19 months, and we are piloting new e-learning methodologies this winter for possible longer-term adoption.”

U of T Mississauga previously told CityNews approximately 80 per cent of their course would also be in-person. Alex Aurica who previously spoke to CityNews about his concerns related to in-person learning.

He said UTM has recently said they are monitoring COVID-19 cases in Peel Region and could return to its original 70 per cent online delivery of courses if cases state to rise and Peel Public Health indicates it’s unsafe to return in-person.

Associate Professor Thomas Tenkate at Ryerson said especially with the new variant of concern, universities should be more flexible.

“I think what we have to keep in mind is that the pandemic is evolving, and it’s continues to evolve and with evolving with the release of the information about the new variant of concern, that means that we have to sort of say, well, what’s what’s going to be the future for us?”

Tenkate said there needs to be a middle ground for the students who want to come to class, those who don’t want out of safety concerns and those who can’t.

“I think that that you can do face to face where you are recording the lecture and I’ve even before COVID. I was doing that myself. So the technology is there to be able to do that,” said Tenakte.

Most universities have also enacted a vaccine mandate for returning students and staff. Anyone who steps foot on campus is required to be fully vaccinated. For Ryerson of their 45,000 students, approximately 95 per cent of students have shared their vaccine status and 96 per cent are vaccinated.

At York University of the 64,000 staff members, faculty and students, 61,000 have entered their vaccine status. Of those, 97 per cent of staff, 98 per cent of faculty/instructors, and 95 per cent of students have been fully vaccinated.

Some students who are not vaccinated may be forced to drop certain courses or become unenrolled if online options are not provided.

When asked if Tenkate believes there should be options in place for students who are not vaccinated, he said as students may not be vaccinated for a variety reasons, there should be alternatives available to them.

“Our university systems have a lot of accommodations in them already for people who have medical issues. In some ways, this really falls into that category,” said Tenakte. “How can we accommodate, particularly people who can’t be vaccinated for for medical reasons as well, and at this stage, I don’t think we’re doing a good job in providing options for those those students.”

CityNews spoke with one York University student, who asked not to be identified, who said they are not getting vaccinated for personal reasons and therefore cannot attend classes on campus, but she said some of her friends who are fully vaccinated are considered about being forced to attend in person class.

“One of my friends said they have a chronic illness and she is unable to get her third dose. But she’s expressed to the faculty that you know, she doesn’t feel comfortable to come in person because she’s scared she’s going to catch something and bring it home to her elderly parents.”

She said her friend conducted her own petition and 75 per cent of the class preferred an online option but York said it was too late to change.

COVID-19 cases have been steadily increasing over the last few weeks in Ontario and several cases of the variant that originated in southern Africa have already been detected in Canada including some in the GTA.

A travel ban has also been introduced for 10 African countries in an attempt to keep the variant from spreading further.


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