Universities across Saskatchewan began largely remote fall semesters this week. Now, students at the University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Polytechnic have learned they will not be returning to campus in the new year.
On Thursday, the universities announced their intention to continue delivering most classes online through winter 2021 to help slow the spread of COVID-19. A small number of labs, studios and seminars will continue to be taught in person.
University of Regina interim president and vice-chancellor Thomas Chase said this plan, while disappointing to many members of the university community, was necessary for public health.
The decision was made in light of the fact there is currently no COVID-19 vaccine, he said, and the possibility of a rise in cases during flu season.
"In the face of what we're seeing in a number of schools — particularly in the United States — that brought students back … and in the absence of a crystal ball, we made the decision," he said.
University of Saskatchewan associate vice-president Darcy Marciniuk lauded his campus community members for their ongoing commitment to public health.
"This is a challenging time for many individuals — the students, faculty and staff have made significant sacrifices and they have been very resilient and caring," he said.
Both the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan are reporting enrolment numbers similar to last year's, though that statistic remains in flux during the course add-drop period.
Chase says faculty and staff have been working hard to foster a positive remote school environment this year.
"In the very quick transition to a fully remote environment in March, there was a tremendous strain on all members of the teaching staff and the people who support them," he said.
"Since then, I think the wonderful professors and staff have really had an opportunity to see the landscape and, if they weren't familiar with remote teaching before, to adapt to that landscape.
"And I know how committed faculty are to providing the best possible experience for students."
University experience 'incomplete': students union
Gurjinder Singh Lehal, president of the University of Regina Students' Union, has spoken to many who are unhappy with the decision.
"The majority of the students I have spoken to [since the announcement] were really shocked," he said.
"They were hoping that after a year, there would be some good news and we would be back on campus with our class-fellows and friends."
Lehal is particularly concerned about students' ability to access mental health and community support from a distance.
"The university experience is incomplete without any social interaction and peer-to-peer support," he said. "And coping with mental health might be the biggest challenge in the coming year."
Chase said the University of Regina has expanded the availability of counselling services, particularly emergency counselling, and is exploring the possibility of allocating more resources for student mental health if needed.
At the moment, students can access mental health services over Zoom on weekdays, and three nurse practitioners trained to provide an initial mental health care response will be joining the Student Wellness Centre in January.
Autumn LaRose-Smith, president of the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union, is glad the universities announced their decision early in the semester, giving students time to prepare.
"I think that will offer a lot more predictability for students who are living remotely or unsure about what term two might look like," she said.
However, she remains skeptical about the quality of education students will receive from a year of online classes.
"For myself in particular, in one of the classes I am registered for, my professor simply uploaded the entire term of pre-recorded lectures," she said. "Now it's kind of up to me to teach myself. And that's definitely not something I signed up for."
Initially, University of Regina graduate student Manpreet Kaur was optimistic about her online classes. But now that she is staring down two fully remote semesters, she is becoming more concerned about how this will impact her academics.
"Things are getting harder and harder day by day," she said.
"Being a master's student, we have many group projects and discussions with other students. With this online system, we cannot meet people due to social distancing and cannot connect in the library and have group discussions."
Re-evaluate tuition: union president
Some students at the University of Regina — particularly students who sought out classes that were designed for online delivery even before the pandemic — are noticing a "distance education fee" on their tuition bill.
This charge of $67.75 per course, which has existed for years, applies to courses designed to be fully online — 10 per cent of the university's total course offerings this fall. The fee does not apply to lectures that are only taking place online because of the pandemic.
"Fully online courses have that extra fee because they are very expensive to develop," Chase said. "We use that fee to hire and pay instructional designers who assist the faculty in developing and maintaining those online courses.… A fully online course can be the equivalent of a full 300-page textbook with interactive elements, videos and animations."
The University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Polytechnic have not raised their tuition this academic year. However, due to the limitations of online learning, LaRose-Smith believes students should be paying less than they did last year.
"Students are paying tuition and fees for an institution that is not what they signed up for," she said. "Certainly, during COVID-19, a lot of things have changed. But … I think students want more."
In one of her courses, LaRose-Smith said the professor is unfamiliar with the technology they will be using to teach.
"I didn't sign up for a university where my professors are going to be learning alongside me," she said. "I wanted an institution where my professors are informed, and I can learn from them. So I think the university really needs to re-evaluate the tuition they're charging students."