Province's back-to-school plan for post-secondary students earns mixed grades

·4 min read
Province's back-to-school plan for post-secondary students earns mixed grades

Post-secondary students can start returning to campus in greater numbers beginning next week.

Quebec's Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann announced the details of the province's plan for a gradual return to class for CEGEPs, colleges, and universities.

In red zones, students will be allowed to head back several times a month, ideally once a week, regardless of their program of study.

Classroom capacity is being capped at 50 per cent for theory classes, with no limit on practical classes (like science labs) and everyone must maintain a 1.5-metre distance in addition to wearing a mask.

McCann thanked post-secondary students for their efforts throughout the pandemic, and said she hopes relaxing the measures will give people the chance to "break the isolation, breathe in the fresh air, and have the energy [they] need to continue or complete [their] education."

Establishments are expected to maintain distance learning for students who cannot, or choose not to, return to campus for in-person classes.

Student group leader lauds the move

While the institutions are autonomous and reopening is optional, McCann said she believes they're happy about the announcement.

"I think that in the exchanges we've had with them they're all very happy that this is happening," she said.

She said everyone is on the same page that it's especially important for the mental health of students.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Student Union President Jade Marcil said she was glad to hear the news, particularly because it'll help people fight isolation.

"We also think that those measures will get them out of their bedrooms," said Marcil, whose group has 91,000 members. "Some of them have not gone to the campus in like eleven months, so we think creating that safe space to meet will help them a lot."

Teachers weigh in

But not everyone is thrilled with the plan, and some faculty members have their reservations.

Sylvia Santosa, an associate professor of health, kinesiology and applied physiology at Concordia University, aid she finds the reopening premature, considering everything the government and population have done to keep case numbers down. She would rather see those numbers keep dwindling before reopening.

Chloe Ranaldi/CBC
Chloe Ranaldi/CBC

For Santosa, who teaches three-hour classes to very large groups, she's also unsure about the logistics.

And she said she's been hearing similar hesitation about coming back from her students.

For her part, English teacher Jennifer Egan of the CEGEP Limoilou in Quebec City, said she has mixed feelings about the gradual reopening.

"Of course we have to make sure nobody is going to spread COVID," she said. "At the same time, I know so many students find it very difficult to not have face-to-face contact with their teachers and their classmates."

Many students haven't stepped foot in a classroom since last spring.

"The only time, aside from this Tuesday, that I had seen any of my students is if they happened to be at the CEGEP while I was there and I ran into them," Egan said.

But if all Egan's students decide to return, she'll have to split them into smaller groups to maintain a safe distance. That will force her to teach the same lesson multiple times, adding significantly to her workload.

For many, going back to class means changing cities

After nearly a year studying from home many students have decided not to return to the cities where they study.

Elizabeth Couture is studying marketing at Concordia University but is living with her family in her native Sherbrooke.

Halfway through her first year of university, she's never physically been to class on the Montreal campus.

"I think this news is great in theory, but not so much in practice," she said, adding international and inter-regional students have more issues to sort out than locals when it comes to a return to campus.

And in the regions, many students are faced with whether to stay home in one of the six soon-to-be orange zones, or travel to a red zone to attend class in person.

Simon Turcotte/Radio-Canada
Simon Turcotte/Radio-Canada

For Alice Lavoie, who is a Université de Sherbrooke student but lives in Rimouski, the pros of staying in an orange zone outweigh those of attending class in person.

She said at least in Rimouski she can take advantage of the partial lifting of confinement measures Monday: she'll be able to stay with family and go to restaurants and theatres, instead of returning to the apartment in the Eastern Townships where she lives alone.

Quebecers express concerns online

Reaction was also swift online.

Nearly 150 people commented on CBC's livestream of the announcement on Facebook, most of them expressing concern over the province's plan.

"Scheduling nightmare," wrote one viewer.

Another wrote that many students, especially in bigger cities, take public transportation to get to campus, adding another level of risk.

McCann said post-secondary students are responsible, and she's counting on them to follow health and safety measures to keep COVID-19 away from campus.