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Canadian students want clearer communication, more certainty from universities

Online learning is necessary in light of Omicron, but transparency is also needed, one student says

On the left, Abigia Debebe, a student at the University of Calgary. Pictured clockwise from top left: Amin Montazeri, University of Manitoba; Jayani Patel, Ryerson University; Emma Nephtali, McGill University; Katelynn Kovalchuk, University of B.C.

On the left, Abigia Debebe, a student at the University of Calgary. Pictured clockwise from top left: Amin Montazeri, University of Manitoba; Jayani Patel, Ryerson University; Emma Nephtali, McGill University; Katelynn Kovalchuk, University of B.C.

Photo: (Photo illustration/CBC)


For international student Abigia Debebe, who moved to Calgary from Ethiopia in August 2021, studying in a new country has been a "gloomy" experience. She was initially supposed to attend courses in-person, but then some of her classes moved online, which meant a semester of lonely lectures watched from her dorm room. 

In late December, the 19-year-old University of Calgary computer science major learned via email that would continue, with courses delivered completely virtually until the end of January. 

Then Friday, the school pushed that date back (new window) again — with in-person classes now scheduled to start Feb. 28.

Debebe says she understands that universities and their administration are under immense pressure, given the unpredictability of the pandemic.

But I believe that's part of the job. It's to look forward, to weigh the risks and to come up with the best solution that you can on time.

The Omicron-fuelled wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has thrown Canadian universities and their students for a loop: while many schools were optimistic about an in-person start to the semester this month, the pandemic's sudden turn has forced them back to square one, shifting classes back online.

But students are agitated and frustrated by what they see as dithering on the part of the school.

In a lengthy statement to CBC News, the University of Calgary said that the school has had to make decisions based on the fluid and changing local and global dynamics of the COVID-19 situation. It said that it has communicated with the community regularly to allow for as much notice as possible.

Feeling in limbo

The pandemic hit just as Jayani Patel, now a third-year English student, was finishing her first year at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her classes have been completely online since then, she said. Until the university announced mid-December that courses would be held online until Jan. 30 to limit the spread of the Omicron variant, she was ready to go back in person.

I was ready for a fresh start, Patel said. Now, she would rather the semester be taught online from start to finish — and that school be in-person next year, so that students like her can enjoy a clean slate. She hopes to celebrate her college graduation with peers, family and friends.

The school announced (new window) in October that it was planning a significant increase in on-campus activity at the start of the new semester, indicating to students that the majority of classes would be held in-person. But in December, Ontario's healthcare system was hit by the Omicron wave, and Ryerson said that it would instead take a measured approach (new window), which includes conducting classes online from Jan. 7 until at least the 31st.

For Patel, the back-and-forth communication from the school has felt akin to being in limbo, figuring out whether or not we'll actually be able to learn in-person, she explained.

Ryerson did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News by deadline.

'They didn't really stick to a plan'

I really feel for people who have to go through this for the first time, or even the second time, said Amin Montazeri, an international student from Iran. Now in his fifth year at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Montazeri said that the Winter 2020 semester was a nightmare.

The fluctuation between delivery styles has been hectic for students, the kinesiology major said. Courses were also stalled for five weeks (new window) last fall by a faculty strike, with union members vying for higher salaries to help with recruitment and retention among staff.

The school said it would make up for the missed class time by extending the fall semester into December and the winter semester into April. A few weeks later, it announced that a move to virtual was also in store, with in-person classes resuming Feb. 26 after a winter break.

But who can guarantee that from the looks of it? The fact that they didn't really stick to a plan … it adds to the ambiguity of it all, Montazeri said.

As a student coordinator with Community Engaged Learning at the University, Montazeri often works with incoming students, both domestic and international, as they adjust to on-campus life. It's a lot, especially for the second class of students who are spending most of their university experience online, he said.

Everything's up in the air, but we're trying to make the best of it.

In a statement to CBC News, a representative from the University of Manitoba said that the school recognizes the university community's desire for clarity.

We hope to be in a position to return to campus following winter break (Feb. 26), however, it is too soon to make that decision.

Move online is necessary, but so is transparency

Katelynn Kowalchuk, a master's student in political science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, deferred her studies to Sept. 2021 so that she could get the full university experience. She lucked out, with all of her classes last semester taught in-person.

She said she feels some resentment about UBC's recent decision to deliver most courses online until Jan. 24 — which then changed to Feb. 7 — but believes that the school's switch to virtual learning was the right thing to do.

There's still a lot unknown about the current Omicron wave, and I think staying online is fundamentally in the best interest of students, staff and faculty to keep everyone safe. 

When reached for comment, a UBC representative said that the decision to continue online learning until Feb. 7 was made after substantive consultation with students, faculty and unions. Programs such as dentistry, law, performing arts and applied science experiential programs are offering in-person instruction, the spokesperson clarified.

Kowalchuk, who is from Regina, expected UBC to push most courses online. But she laments that many of the school's decisions are made in two-week increments: rather than announcing that a full month of school will take place online, UBC has opted to make plans bit by bit.

I guess my position is just of two minds, Kowalchuk said. "I understand the decision to move online. I think it's the safest one to make right now.

But I wish it was being handled in a clearer and more transparent way.

Schools must improve on mixed-messaging, student says

Emma Nephtali had a mixture of courses offered online and in-person last semester, but felt that on-campus safety measures at McGill University left something to be desired. With that in mind, the fourth-year cognitive science major said that an impending return to in-person classes on Jan. 24 is concerning.

Emma Nephtali is in her fourth year studying cognitive science at McGill University. She wants the university to improve on what she calls 'mixed messaging' towards its students about pandemic safety measures.

Emma Nephtali is in her fourth year studying cognitive science at McGill University. She wants the university to improve on what she calls 'mixed messaging' towards its students about pandemic safety measures. (Submitted by Emma Nephtali)

Photo: (Submitted by Emma Nephtali)

As much as, you know, online school is not fun and not engaging and pretty terrible for students' mental health overall, it's going to put a lot of people in danger if we return to in-person right now, Nephtali said.

Masking is an issue as well, Nephtali noted. Many students are still wearing cloth masks, she said, despite public health advice to upgrade (new window) to surgical masks or even N-95s. Some wear their masks under their noses, or take them off once they sit down. This is especially an issue in large lecture halls where hundreds of students are seated in tight quarters.

The one thing that I wish they would improve on is mixed messaging because they're telling us oh, we're in person, we're online, we're in person, we're online, Nephtali said, adding that McGill's efforts to communicate clearly with students have fallen short.

Fine; a lot of other schools are also doing that. But the one thing that they are doing is telling us things are safe when they very clearly are not.

A representative from McGill University told CBC News in a statement that the school will follow through on a plan to transition to mostly in-person classes on Jan. 24 after provincial guidance said that universities can resume in-person teaching on Jan. 17. The statement said that McGill has an excellent track record in keeping our community safe and that their planning for the Winter 2022 semester remains flexible.

Jenna Benchetrit (new window) · CBC News