The University of Guelph re-opens for in-person learning on Monday, and members of the executive team held a town hall on Thursday to send students, parents, staff and faculty a unified message: They were ready for the return, and all measures are being taken to make sure everything will be as safe as possible. In fact, it was phrased as something of an imperative that students return to campus on Monday.
“I just want to say very clearly, it is not perfect, but I do believe that our university needs to go back on Monday,” said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer who laid out the public health case for going back to in-person learning on January 31.
“If you live in poverty, or belong to a historically marginalized group, the public health measures, the online learning, and the educational impacts have hurt you more than they have hurt those of us who come from more privileged backgrounds or who have not been historically marginalized,” Mercer added. “That is really important.”
“We’re trying to focus the balance between health and safety, and that includes the physical, emotional, and mental health of many on our campus and safety with the academic and research continuity at a time when we are figuring out how to manage the pandemic,” added U of G President Dr. Charlotte Yates. “We need to find ways to continue to operate, to educate, and do our research under new conditions.”
The question about pressing on with the resumption of in-person learning may have been linked to a petition making the rounds on social media asking the U of G to keep remote learning an option for the rest of the winter semester saying that a return to campus “poses a critical threat to the health and safety of our staff, students, and community members.” Yates seemed undeterred though, and explained who she was working with public health and other agencies to make campus as safe from COVID as possible.
“Local conditions were a factor, and we have a very high rate of vaccination in the province, we have access widespread access to boosters, and we do have good uptake,” Yates added. “The University of Guelph has also taken many, many steps, including the decision on medical masks, as well as much earlier decisions on increasing ventilation to increase safety of our campus, and therefore make us feel confident that we can transition safely back to in-person classes.”
Mercer praised the U of G’s move to mandatory medical masks, and noted that the success of in-person learning starting on Monday will depend on everyone on campus doing their part. So wear a mask, keep physically distant, get your booster shot if you haven’t already, and, perhaps most importantly, stay at home if you’re feeling sick.
“I cannot stress enough that we all have a personal responsibility to complete all of these items,” Mercer said. “I can’t emphasize enough to stay home if you feel sick. This is the new normal. […] Staying home if you’re sick is a personal responsibility that we all must follow.”
Provost and vice-president (academic) Dr. Gwen Chapman addressed that aspect of pandemic protection saying that the administration has been working with instructors on how students who have to isolate will be able to keep up with the class work, or what happens when the instructor themselves might be the ones that need to isolate.
“At the instructor level, we have certainly been providing technological supports and course design supports to provide different ways that instructors can support students if they have to stay home,” Chapman said. “Each course is different, and each instructor is different, so there’s there’s no one solution here. Instructors do have the flexibility to make the decisions that are most appropriate for their course.”
Knowing where the COVID cases are is going to be an issue. Like Ontario’s public schools, there’s no way for university students to know how prevalent COVID is on campus. Yates did point to the university’s wastewater monitoring of campus residences as an advantage though, and that will give people a general sense of how much COVID might be swirling around the university.
“Rapid testing is only available for specific settings right now at the university and are assessed for high risk areas to respond to potential high risk exposures,” added vice-president (finance and operations) Sharmilla Rasheed. “A rapid test maybe provided if there was a risk of exposure due to close contact in a workplace or in the residence, but we’re not providing rapid test more broadly for general civilians due to the limited supplies, not only to the university, but the broader public.”
One of the things that will not be an issue though is making sure everyone on campus is either fully vaccinated, or has a proper medical exemption. Although the University of Guelph will not yet be defining fully vaccinated as “three doses”, they will be enforcing the current vaccine mandates.
“Vaccination certificates are checked at all on campus restaurants, athletic facilities, and places that are considered high risk, so you have to have that QR code before you can enter those facilities,” Rasheed explained. “Our approach takes into consideration the level of risk, and it begins with education where appropriate. Students who breach COVID protocols may be subject to disciplinary action, and it’s important that all of us follow the rules and help to protect each other.”
But the university is also promising to offer students help; help accessing PPE, rapid tests and booster shots through Student Health Services. The U of G exec team also promised to do everything they can to help students with mental health issues, which has long been an urgent area of concern on campus.
“We know that mental health issues have been significant for students for for a long time. The pandemic and certainly exacerbated this, and there’s no easy solution,” Rasheed said. “We do provide significant supports through our Student Wellness Services in terms of the availability of counsellors, and through Resident Life activities there are a number of programs and resources that are available to help students. We regularly make sure in our public communications that we have links to where students can reach out for help.”