COVID-19: Ontario universities, colleges told to prepare for normal fall with backup plans

WATCH ABOVE: After months of uncertainty, post-secondary education looks like it will resume in-class learning this fall. But both institutions and students may require a little more time before a new normal sets in. Matthew Bingley reports.

TORONTO — Ontario colleges and universities should prepare for all in-person classes and activities to resume this fall without capacity limits or physical distancing, the government says, though many institutions will still use a mix of in-person and online learning.

The Ministry of Colleges and Universities has told the institutions to have plans for how learning will continue in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“While we must remain vigilant and responsive to the trajectory of COVID-19, I am optimistic that the (post-secondary education) sector will resume many of the cherished in-person experiences that have been on pause for so long,” deputy minister Shelley Tapp wrote in a recent memo to the institutions.

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Tapp said it’s “anticipated” that all in-person instruction and on-campus activities will be allowed again this fall, after more than a year since they were paused due to the pandemic.

Universities and colleges will still have to follow all public health and workplace safety rules, including requiring masks indoors, Tapp said.

The schools will still have flexibility to offer teaching in a variety of ways that best suit their needs, Tapp wrote, including virtual and hybrid models.

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The University of Windsor is planning for on-campus activities to resume and for a mix of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses. A spokeswoman said a variety of factors went into deciding which methods would be used for which courses, including class sizes, student population, facilities, and whether the course relies on lectures or labs.

“For example, students in fine arts-acting have a strong need to have their course material delivered in person, while other students who receive their courses in a more traditional lecture-style way do not,” said Lori Lewis.

Capacity limits and distancing are currently part of the university’s fall plan, but Lewis said it is constantly evolving.

McMaster University is offering courses that are listed as either in-person, online, virtual, or a combination. It is telling students that for “in-person” courses, “there will be varying levels of in-person engagement throughout the term.”

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Seneca College is also planning a mix of four approaches: online, in person, hybrid — which will involve some online instruction and some hands-on lab time in class — and flexible, which involves students choosing when to watch a lecture online and when to attend in person, for example.

In case of COVID-19 outbreaks, institutions must have a “continuity of education” plan ready by September, including information on health protocols in the event of an emergency and how instruction will continue if in-person learning is disrupted.

Specific guidance from the ministry on measures such as masks, screening and cleaning is set to be issued in early August.

The ministry is encouraging schools to use rapid antigen testing for routine screening of asymptomatic people, as well as wastewater surveillance for levels of COVID-19.

The NDP’s colleges and universities critic, Laura Mae Lindo, said resuming classes “is more complicated than just opening the doors,” and called for the government to provide increased funding, including for onsite rapid testing and upgraded ventilation systems.

The province announced approximately $100 million in March for post-secondary schools that have lost revenue while incurring additional pandemic-related expenses.

The Council of Ontario Universities has said the institutions are facing a shortfall of $500 million related to the pandemic.

Provincewide, there were 130 new cases of COVID-19 reported Monday and no new deaths. Eighteen of the new cases are in Toronto, 17 in Peel Region, 16 in the Region of Waterloo, 14 in Hamilton and 10 each in Grey Bruce and Middlesex-London.

There were 11,567 tests completed in the previous day. There are 151 people in intensive care in hospitals due to COVID-related critical illness and 94 patients are on ventilators.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said 91,320 vaccine doses were administered in the previous day, for a total of more than 18.2 million.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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