Montreal CEGEPs, universities brace for another challenging semester

Schools say they know many students and teachers are itching to get back on campus, while others still think it's too risky.

Dawson College science student Michael Alexander in his bedroom at his home in Pointe-Claire.

And while many are itching to get back to in-person classes, they said, they also know others don’t yet feel comfortable doing so.

Meanwhile, Premier François Legault has said he is trying to figure out ways to safely get more students back on campuses as soon as possible.

“I support the idea that CEGEP and university students should go to school at least once a week,” Legault said at a news conference this week, acknowledging it could risk further spreading the virus.

“I think it’s time for them to see people after 11 months.”

Legault said public health officials have suggested waiting until after Feb. 8, the day some of Quebec’s partial lockdown could be lifted, before exploring the idea.

Until then, higher education schools in Montreal will be sticking to the plans they had made for this semester, with nearly all courses being offered online.

For most, including McGill and Concordia universities, only courses that require a physical presence — for example, science students needing to use laboratories — will be offered in person, though some exceptions are being made.

At Dawson College, director general Diane Gauvin said the school is following public health directives and waiting to see if the government adjusts its guidelines in coming weeks.

As the semester starts, only a small fraction of courses offered will have some in-person component.

“There are a number of things we need to reflect on,” Gauvin said. “But everything we can do to give students who want to come to the college (the chance to), I think we will try to do within the constraints.”

Last week, a letter signed by more than a dozen LaSalle College students, including some living with immunocompromised family members, stated they don’t feel comfortable returning to in-person courses “until cases go down.”

A teacher at the college, who asked her name not be published for fears of professional repercussions, questioned why some courses are being offered in-person this semester when it doesn’t feel necessary to her.

Though she said she believes the college has made the campus safe, in-person classes still require students travelling, often on public transit, to get to and from the school.

“The government is saying stay home and work from home as much as possible because our numbers and hospitals are exploding,” she said. “Yet you’re asking students to put themselves at risk, you’re asking teachers to put themselves at risk. It doesn’t make sense.”

In an interview, LaSalle College director-general Myrianne Collin said she understands people’s concerns given the state of the pandemic.

But she said the school has also heard from many students who’ve found online learning challenging and teachers who feel their students’ motivation is dropping.

Collin said less than 10 per cent of students will be on campus at any given time this semester and noted the campus didn’t experience any COVID-19 outbreaks last year.

She also said the school has gone to great lengths, including implementing temperate checks, to ensure the campus is as safe as possible.

“I’d rather be in the college than in the grocery store or drugstore,” Collin said.

At Vanier College, academic dean Annie-Claude Banville said the school has advised teachers to prepare as though the semester will be almost entirely online.

Banville said students and teachers have said the constant changes in how classes are taught was a source of anxiety earlier in the pandemic, so the school decided to “make a decision and stick with it.”

Michael Alexander has heard all about how nice Dawson College’s campus is, but he couldn’t really tell you for himself. Despite now entering his second semester, he’s only been in the school four times.

Alexander, 18, is one of many Quebec CEGEP or university students starting another semester this month amid the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. He feels his school is doing the best it can, but admits it’s all felt a bit strange.

He still isn’t sure if he’ll be on campus more this semester than last.

“I know some of my peers are pretty scared about it,” he said of possibly returning to in-person classes at some point. “For me, I think it’s good to actually meet people in person for once. But I know there’s still a risk.”

As the pandemic continues to evolve in Quebec, Montreal CEGEPs and universities are readying for another challenging semester.

Above all else, academic deans and school directors who spoke to the Montreal Gazette this week said they’re trying to provide some consistency for students and teachers.

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