Concerns over in-person learning grow as universities plan return

As universities plan to return to in-person learning in days, petitions call schools to offer remote options. Faiza Amin has more on GTA students and faculty's concerns about heading back to campus.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

The surge of the Omicron COVID-19 variant sent post-secondary schools online at the beginning of the winter semester, but multiple universities have indicated they plan to return to in-person class in the coming weeks. 

York University and Ryerson University are both implementing a phased return to classes starting on Jan 31.

For York, all classes that were previously indicated to be in-person will return to class by Feb. 14. As of last December, 80 per cent of its courses were expected to be in-person.

Ryerson announced on its website on Wednesday that a full return to in-person learning is expected by Feb. 28.

University of Toronto will be back in class starting on Feb. 7. The school says instructors will let students know prior to that date whether they will be online or in-person and a full return is expected by Feb. 28.

When it was announced back in October that the winter semester would be held in-person for many schools, concerned students spoke with CityNews about their fears heading back to the classroom.

Now those concerns are heightened even more with this announcement considering the highly transmissible Omicron variant is still circulating in the community and there is less access to COVID-19 testing.

“I think it’s important to put into the context that U of T and St. George alone, have 64,000 students and all three campuses combined, 95,000 students at least. So, we’re talking about the movement of 100,000 people,” said a U of T student who wished to remain anonymous and is concerned for their safety in class.

The student said his preference would be in person learning, “but I don’t think it’s realistic or practical in a global pandemic that we’re facing right now.”

They added while they understand there are mental health challenges with remaining online, “Being in a safe environment is [also] very key to mental health.”

“Seeing an institution put hundreds of thousands of people in potential danger unnecessarily, even though they have the technology to go to be remote for the semester until the pandemic subsides enough is is certainly, not just stressful but could further exacerbate that mental health challenges,” they added.

A spokesperson for the University of Toronto said they have planned since the Fall to have the majority of their courses with some in-person activity associated with them and students who registered for in-person courses will need to travel to Toronto to participate in those course.

“We are balancing the learning needs of our students with safety measures to minimize the spread of Omicron. We are relying on expert advice to ensure our community is safe and supported,” the statement read.

“We believe that the continuum of education from pre-school through post-secondary is essential to the wellbeing of our society and as the Ontario Science Advisory Table notes, is vital to students’ mental health,” continued the statement.

“I think the [university’s] email [on return to class] kind of lacks details on how that could be done safely. Because there are several safety measures at U of T that are now basically gone,” the student said, specifically referencing testing.

Thousands of people have stood in lines across the GTA for rapid test kits, including at U of T’s St. George Campus, but they are still not readily available.

It’s also nearly impossible for the average person to get a PCR test as only limited populations are eligible, including to those in hospital and other congregate settings.

Masks and proof-of-vaccination is required at each university. U of T says they will require all students and staff to upload their proof of vaccination and encouraged everyone to get their booster dose.

“We are balancing the learning needs of our students with safety measures to minimize the spread of Omicron. We are relying on expert advice to ensure our community is safe and supported,” a spokesperson said.

Some students say it does not go far enough to protect them.

International students were also nervous about the cost of heading back to Toronto with the chance things could shift back online like what ended up happening at the beginning of the semester.

Now ones who decided not to travel to the city are left in a lurch as housing may be hard to come by midway through the semester.

Skyler Eg-Anderson is third-year student at Ryerson who lives in Muskoka and decided not to find housing this semester, assuming there would be options to continue online learning.

She says there isn’t much clarity in whether that will be an option for her so

Luckily for Skyler, she has an aunt she can stay with during the semester should she need to attend class because as she says, “I can’t find housing right now. It’s very stressful.”

And students aren’t the only ones concerned about safety heading back to class, faculty are as well.

President of the University of Toronto Faculty Association Terezia Zoric, said the return to in-person learning has been confusing, adding “there is a lot of chaos going on.”

“The promise was made that there would be some room for instructors to decide what they were comfortable with and to help make decisions but we’re hearing from all of our members that they’re not actually being allowed to decide.”

Echoing many of the students, Zoric said the vast majority professors prefer to teach in-person, but “only when it is safe enough to do so.”

When asked if she thinks U of T making the right move to go back to class, she said no. “They’re not doing it in the right way because they’re not working with student groups and with employee groups to plan the safest possible return by putting into place all the different layers for protection we now know.”

“I think the one word that describes how people feel is worried and the second would be frustrated … They’re not being given basic answers that you would think people would need in order to feel that it’s safe enough to return.”

The example she uses is that exams last year were moved to online due to the university determining it wasn’t safe. “But it’s not any safer now than it was then or if it is safer, we don’t know why they think it’s safer, so we’ve asked the question ‘What has changed since December?”

She adds students are saying, “I want the right to learn from home.”

Katrina Ince-Lum is in her final year of undergrad at York University after returning to school during the pandemic.

Ince-Lum said she’s has not been put at ease by the safety measures in place, including the screening app York asks all their students to use prior to going to campus, adding it basically works on an honour system.

“The kind of communication that I was looking for was things, like information on air quality at the university. That information is not released to students. [And] I’d like them to review their information on mask usage.”

She says those who are able-bodied are the ones being prioritized and remote learning should at least be offered to those who need it. “I’d like the university to acknowledge that for some people, especially who for them going around other people puts them at risk. That’s not being taken into consideration that I can see so I’d really like that to be available to students.”

“They’ve let the genie out of the bottle as far as remote learning goes. They should continue to allow to give students their choice not only for students who are here, physically present in the city, but international students and students who are studying from outside of the city,” said Ince-Lum.

She adds even elementary and secondary students get the choice of whether to participate in remote learning when in-person learning is still ongoing.

“University students, for the most part, do not get a choice at all. We do not get asked ‘What we would like?’ we’re told, ‘This is what we’re doing’.”

Government officials say the province is approaching the peak of the Omicron wave, but hospitalizations remain high and case counts remain unreliable due to the lack of testing.

Ontario intends to begin its reopening plan on Jan. 31, allowing restaurants and gyms to reopen with more restrictions lifting in mid-Feb. Elementary and secondary students returned to class on Jan. 17.

CityNews reached out to all three universities with a number of questions, but only received a response from University of Toronto and York University.

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