Will students return to campus next year? Probably not, experts say

How post-secondary schools are preparing for the fall semester.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Canada in mid-March, Canadian university and college campuses were forced to close and classes were moved online.

Since then, students and parents have been wondering about the upcoming school year. In response, several universities — including McGill University in Montreal, the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa — announced that classes in the fall semester will primarily be offered online.

But questions about the winter semester and beyond remain. Can students expect to be physically on campus at some point next year? And for first-year students, is dorm life still a possibility?

Experts say it’s unlikely campuses will be able to return to “normal” in the next academic year.

READ MORE: Dalhousie University faculty raise concerns over shift to online teaching

“We hope for the best, we plan for the worst,” said Colin Furness, professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He’s been thoroughly involved in discussions about the 2020-2021 school year at the University of Toronto.

“We want our students on campus if we can do it safely … learning is better in person, but the extent that it’s safe is the big open question,” Furness said.

Ultimately, the answer will depend on the level of community spread in the city where a school is located, said Furness.

“Kingston (Ont.) basically has no COVID-19 right now, and that’s fantastic,” Furness said. “If there’s a way for Queen’s University to get rolling in September … and COVID-19 still stays away, that would be fantastic.”

Furness is more optimistic about schools like Queen’s than he is about schools like the University of Toronto, which has a main campus right in the middle of Canada’s largest city.

There’s also the question of a possible second wave, which many public health officials and infectious disease specialists have warned could hit Canada in the fall months. Things could seem better in September only to become worse again by November — something schools should take into consideration when making decisions about reopening.

READ MORE: Coronavirus is changing how university works. What does the future hold for students?

“The short answer is we actually still don’t know what’s going to be feasible,” said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor of global health, law and political science at York University.

“Part of that is because we don’t know at what stage the outbreak will be come September … or whether the outbreak will still be around in some parts of Canada and not others.”

Hoffman predicts that post-secondary schools won’t be able to reopen “business as usual” in the fall, and there will need to be significant adjustments made if schools want to attempt reopening for the winter term.

“I don’t think any Canadian university will do anything that’s going to put their students or staff in harm’s way,” he said.

Making campuses safer

There are a few changes professors like Furness would like to see on post-secondary campuses before they welcome students back.

“No huge classes and no packed classes … and those are two different things,” Furness said. “A giant classroom can be huge, but if the number of people (in the class) is huge, that’s risky. A small class of 25 people packed into a teeny, tiny room is also risky.”

Furness says the square metres allotted per student needs to increase to allow for physical distancing and ultimately decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19.

READ MORE: Fall classes will mostly be done online amid COVID-19, some Canadian universities say

Hoffman agrees — class sizes and class locations will likely be the first to change, if and when campuses reopen.

“The seminal experience that many first year students have, walking into a lecture theatre and seeing 500 of their closest friends, is very unlikely to happen this fall.”

Another big consideration is enclosed spaces with high traffic, like elevators and cafeterias.

“Can the elevators and stairwells be (used) by one or two people at a time? Are we going to have enough time between classes? Should everyone in an elevator wear a mask?” Furness said. “It’s complicated.”

READ MORE: Health Canada approves first clinical trial for possible coronavirus vaccine

Ultimately, campuses will need to undergo significant changes to be considered safe enough for students in a world with the threat of COVID-19.

“Universities are crowded places where lots of people convene in close proximity to each other, and that’s one of the things that makes university campuses amazing places to be,” Hoffman said.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the reasons campuses can be so vulnerable to infectious disease.

Are student residences a thing of the past?

When student residences are allowed to reopen, both Furness and Hoffman predict major changes to the traditional structure.

“Not all but some have communal bathrooms, not all but some have communal dining,” Furness said of the major concerns from an infectious disease standpoint. “They’re meant to be quite social. They’re meant to be that you have a community, and (residences) do a great job of making community happen.

“I won’t say that (residences) are badly designed, but their design is not concordant with safety when you have COVID-19.”

READ MORE: McGill University looks to take fall semester online amid coronavirus pandemic

Halving the capacity of a student residence could be one way to keep students safe, but Furness is skeptical that would work with the residence business model.

He also predicts that shared dorm rooms are something that would “just have to stop.”

Hoffman says COVID-19 will likely affect how dorms are built in the future.

“(COVID-19) really emphasizes the need for good public health practices, but also the recognition that these kinds of threats are part of our world and we need to figure out how to address them,” he said.

Moving forward

For now, students and parents should continue to check in with the schools they attend (or plan to attend), as re-entry plans will largely depend on location.

“The number one priority has been, and will remain, the safety and well-being of students and our entire community,” said Philip Landon, vice-president and COO of Universities Canada in a statement to Global News.

To that end, every Canadian college and university has been “considering its course delivery and other operations” taking into account the latest public health guidelines, said Landon.

“Whether courses are delivered online, in-person, or in a hybrid format, Canada’s universities remain committed to providing a safe and high-quality education to all students,” he said.

Hoffman is hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t mark the end of traditional campus life — just makes positive changes to it.

How can we design our world to be even better?” Hoffman said. “As much as we all want to go back to normal, the previous world had gross inequalities … it was not particularly good for many people.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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