Many university students in Ontario feel compelled to return to personal classes

After-school students do not have a choice. Whether they are physically or financially able to return to personal classes in the next month, or they even feel safe doing so, they should.

If not, they say they will be forced to drop out of their courses and postpone the graduation ceremony.

For Jwalit Bharwani, a Ryerson student in mechanical engineering, the school’s return to campus plan feels premature, even thoughtless. All students are expected to be back Feb. 28, with some courses starting with personal classes starting Monday.

Monday is also when restaurants and movie theaters reopen with 50 percent capacity, among other things. Bharwani said if it is not safe for him to watch a movie with hundreds of people, he should not have to go to a lecture with hundreds of people.

“Everyone in the classroom is vaccinated, but so is everyone in a movie theater – what’s the difference?” he said.

It would be uncomfortable to be in a classroom, where he would be constantly worried about his health, Bharwani said. So too would the journey there. For Bharwani, and thousands of students like him who commute to school, there would be daily encounters with people who could be contagious.

“I used to have COVID when school was on – it affected my academics, it affected my physical health, it affected my mental health,” he said. “I’ve been through it; I do not want to go through it again and I do not want other students to have to go through it. ”

For the many students who moved back home, out of town, while school was online, it can be logistically nightmare-like and expensive to return to Toronto for just two months of personal classes.

“Where are they going to get a lease for two months?” said Bharwani. “How much money will they have to pay? No landlord is going to give it to them, Ryerson Residence is not going to give it to them. What happens to international students? Are they spending thousands on a two-month flight from school that can go online again at any time? ‘

But what choice do they have? Just as he would prefer not to do so, Bharwani goes back to personal classes. That’s it, or give up with the semester and graduate to his peers.

“They do not offer hybrid classes,” he said. “No one I know will give up their classes in the middle of the semester. It gets so late in the semester that you will not even get a refund on your tuition. And if I give up only one course, it will lead to me not graduating on time. ”

And what if he gets sick again? Bharwani said there was no guidance from his faculty in this area. If he has to miss a week of school due to COVID illness, he runs the risk of falling behind. Personal schooling jeopardizes both his grades and health, he said.

Ryerson University did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The university acknowledged receipt of the Star’s request on Wednesday, but did not return a response by publication time.

Bharwani’s only way out, he said, was to get a pen open letter to school, and ask for an online winter semester. He soon noticed a similar letter circulating, written by associate professors at Ryerson’s School of Occupational and Public Health, who, among other things, ask for smaller class sizes and resources and support for hybrid learning.

“We have many international students who will have to travel far to get here and many adult students, with young children, living in multi-generational households who are concerned about the safety of their family members,” the letter signer and associate said. Professor Anne Harris. “No institution or sector works without interaction with the community. And what happens to community distribution affects the entire population. ”

Another signatory, Associate Professor Ian Young, said nearly 90 percent of his class of 120 students said they prefer to stay online this semester.

“From what I heard from my students, yes, distance learning was challenging, but pandemic stressors also affect their mental health,” he said. “Now, they do not know what is going to happen – how are they going to get downtown, how are they going to find a place to live? It affects their mental health more than distance education would do.”

Young said the university did not address concerns about what would happen if large sections of classes became ill at the same time. Nor what would happen if an instructor got sick.

With the healthcare system overloaded, Harris and Young said the number of cases should be kept as low as possible, and therefore they do not feel comfortable with personal classes, especially asking students who are at greater risk to do so at to live.

“I also do not feel comfortable teaching students about epidemiology if I do not assert my values ​​in maintaining health and safety,” Harris said.

Bharwani is far from the only student worried about returning, it seems from almost 11,000 signatories on a Ryerson petition to offer students an online option this semester and more 14,600 signatories on a similar York petition.

“The University of York has announced mandatory personal attendance for all students starting the first week of February, with students unable to attend, being informed that their only option is to drop out,” said a York student. who asked not to be named.

A York spokesman said that while some courses will offer hybrid options that allow students to learn online if they prefer, “it does not work well for every course, and to move to a completely hybrid option across the University,” is not considered. “

“Students who are unable or unwilling to attend campus this term are encouraged to enroll for full online courses, which make up approximately 20 percent of our total course offerings in the winter of 2022,” said Yanni Dagonas , spokesman, said.

The student said she and many other signatories to the York petition “did not feel safe going to class” with Omicron raging, and expressed similar concerns to Bharwani, Harris and Young over the difficulty of housing for two months gain.

At the University of Toronto, most courses will have at least one personal component starting at the end of February, a spokesman said. Students who registered for them “will have to travel to Toronto to attend those courses,” but the school has “support, including counseling and peer groups, for students struggling to adjust.”

“We believe that the continuum of education from preschool to after-school is essential to the well-being of our society and, as the Ontario Science Advisory Table notes, essential to students’ mental health,” U or T’s spokesman said.

For Bharwani, the spiritual benefits of campus life are currently being undermined by the risk that the virus still poses.

“I know people have been sitting at home, and it’s tiring and depressing, but it’s not as depressing as missing an exam because you got sick.”

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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