Canadian college and university students were anticipating a more normal return to campus this fall, after most only had classes online last year. However, many are already experiencing a turbulent kickoff to the new term.
Students in different regions are reporting in-person courses or entire programs suddenly switched to virtual. Others remain in the dark about how their classes will proceed, just days ahead of starting.
While some institutions are citing shifting pandemic conditions and requirements for changes, students say the last-minute nature of the decisions is unfair and unacceptable.
A sudden pivot to online learning just as classes are getting underway can be a dismal prospect, especially for those who've already paid to travel to school, for dorm rooms, signed year-long leases to live close to campus or perhaps bought non-refundable parking or transit passes.
Having deferred starting at the University of Calgary last year, Abi Debebe was excited to begin her computer science program. Learning in June that three of her four fall courses would be in-person — confirmed in early August, she said — the international student made the move from Ethiopia.
As the 19-year-old ended her two-week isolation period later in August, however, she got an email that more classes had shifted to virtual.
"[I learned] after I got to Calgary, after I had paid for quarantine. I had paid for accommodation, my flight here, everything — and just to sit inside my dorm room and learn through a screen all day, which essentially I could have done back home and saved myself a lot of time and energy," Debebe said.
"I think students, especially international students, would have thought twice before making this huge financial [investment]."
University of Calgary Students' Union president Nicole Schmidt confirmed that the late-August decision has affected international and domestic students enrolled in at least 150 U of C courses so far and said the university "pulled the rug out from under" them.
"We've heard from many students who have been quite upset about this course-delivery change," Schmidt said. "This was a challenging enough semester as it is. I don't think that students needed this extra stress."
Similar stories have emerged from the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia, where students in the human kinetics and nursing programs, as well as those taking classes in the faculty of arts, have reported sudden shifts from in-person to virtual delivery. Others aren't sure how their classes — which begin after Labour Day — will proceed.
'It's just been a circus'
"Here's one UBC page saying 'It's in person, you're expected to be here.' Here's another saying 'It's going to be online for a while, we're not too sure for the Okanagan campus.' It's a bit of a dumpster fire," said Kai Rogers, a fourth-year management student and director at large for the UBC Okanagan Students' Union.
"There was ample time to prepare and within the last week, it's just been a circus."
Because 22-year-old Rogers hadn't enjoyed or felt engaged by online learning last year, he had intentionally chosen classes with in-person or hybrid delivery (in which instructors teach students physically at the Kelowna, B.C., campus at the same time as those logging in virtually).
"Tens of thousands of students are building their lives around plans that [are changing] on a daily basis because UBC didn't have the forethought to go 'Hey, let's build [flexibility] in here. Let's make sure we're ready in case something like [the delta variant] does happen."
For its part, UBC Okanagan cited a number of factors — including a late-July outbreak and rise in COVID-19 cases among 20- to 40-year-olds, new public heath orders and the B.C. wildfires — for the shifts to online.
"Instructors do not take these decisions lightly," said a school statement issued Tuesday
Meanwhile, the University of Calgary said because of delta variant cases rising across Alberta, it decided to shift 10 per cent of course components (including lectures, labs, seminars and tutorials) to virtual.
In a statement to CBC News, the school said 80 per cent of students have fall schedules that are entirely in-person or a mixed online and in-person mode of delivery. Students shifted fully online will not pay campus and transit fees and "financial supports have been established for those significantly affected by these changes," the statement said.
'80-person class with no distancing'
In other cases, students say recent provincial shifts in COVID-19 requirements have contributed to an already confusing scramble at post-secondary institutions.
McGill University has repeatedly emphasized its students should prepare to be back on campus, said Emma Nephtali, a fourth-year student in the cognitive science program. But the Montreal school hasn't been clear about how courses would actually look.
First, the 21-year-old's fall schedule included two in-person classes and one virtual. That shifted to all in-person delivery after Quebec relaxed physical distancing requirements for post-secondary space in August (the province subsequently reinstated the mask mandate portion).
After midnight on Wednesday, the first day of school, one of her classes was changed again to virtual (not the one listed earlier as such). "It's been very challenging trying to figure out what my actual schedule is," she said.
The latest course delivery change happened mere hours before another anxious moment: stepping into her first in-person class since spring 2020. It turned out to be inside a packed room led by a professor who Nephtali said triumphantly removed his mask to lecture (permitted under Quebec's rules), but didn't always stay the required two metres away from students in the front row.
"I was hoping that [going back] didn't have to mean getting thrown into an 80-person class with no distancing," she said.
"It would be great to see people's faces, but not in a room where the windows aren't open, where I have no confirmation of ... vaccination status and where the people around me can't be bothered to wear their masks properly."
'We'd rather open cautiously'
Earlier this summer, Seneca College announced a strict COVID-19 vaccine mandate for returning to campus this fall, but along with that, Seneca president David Agnew said establishing a range of course delivery options early on and choosing not to rush into a full-on return have also been part of the Toronto-based institution's plan.
"You just have to be very careful about raising expectations about what you're able to deliver safely," Agnew said.
"We've always taken the view that we'd rather open cautiously and safely as opposed to having to retreat because of yet another wave."
WATCH | College president explains Seneca's approach to gradual, safe return to campus
This week, Ontario followed Quebec in lifting physical distancing and capacity limits for post-secondary, but "we're not bringing 40 students back into a 40-seat classroom," Agnew pointed out.
He likened the pandemic to "a series of marathons punctuated by a number of sprints," with the finish line still some distance away. "We prefer to ... treat this semester coming up as kind of a transitional semester."
Having spent first year in residence at Western University, Matthew Lee has his fingers crossed this fall will be an improvement on last year's solitary in-person chemistry lab, with all other classes done virtually from his London, Ont., dormitory.
Now living in an off-campus flat he moved into in May — taking an early, optimistic gamble rather than risk having nowhere to live once school starts — Lee is envisioning sitting in classrooms, seeing more friends and joining clubs.
"I'd finally have that first-year experience in second year," said the 19-year-old medical sciences student, who nonetheless doesn't expect to actually know how his courses will be delivered until the first day of school.
"I would appreciate it if they just told us what to expect. The worst case scenario, at least."