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Concordia’s return to campus announcement sparks calls for greater flexibility

The university officially confirmed the return to campus on Feb. 3 in an internal email to Concordia students, one week before the scheduled date

With the official return to campus around the corner, some Concordia community members say the university’s lack of flexibility surrounding in-person courses is disappointing.

The announcement confirming the Feb. 3 date comes close to two weeks after the university initially notified students of the expected return-to-campus schedule.

The Quebec government gave educational institutions — including CEGEPS and universities — the green light return to in-person instruction as of Jan. 17.

“Not everybody has the luxury to come back in person,” said Sethe Nakib, a fourth-year marketing major. “We have other obligations, so being in person might be complicated for some individuals.”

Nakib currently lives in Toronto with her father, for whom she is a primary caretaker. She said she is struggling to arrange for someone to look after her father in her absence, delaying her move to Montreal.

“We’re going to have to make sacrifices that could be easily avoided if we just kept it remote until the end of the semester,” said Nakib.

The Quebec government’s current health and safety measures for educational institutions does not include distancing. However, this has not diluted students’ concerns about returning to classrooms.

Maria Calcara, a first-year child studies student, recalled feeling uncomfortable attending her in-person classes during the fall semester of 2021.

“Everyone was squished with one another, there was no protocol, no distance,” she said.

The thought of returning to physical classrooms on Feb. 3 is nerve wracking for Calcara.

“I’m kind of afraid and [returning to campus] has been causing me a lot of anxiety,” said Calcara. “Everyone should have a choice of whether they go back [in person] or remain online.”

 

A mixture of reactions 

Amid the pushback, the university’s return-to-campus announcement has also ignited sighs of relief from students.

“I’m really happy to get back,” said Nina Severa, a first-year film production student. “I really enjoy being in person and having the social part of school, so I’m really excited about it.”

As a result of COVID-19 health and safety measures, not having access to campus grounds prevented Severa and her classmates from acquiring necessary equipment for various class projects.

Now returning to campus, Severa said she is looking forward to getting her hands on the materials she needs and getting back to working with her peers.

“Just knowing that we are able to go back and we have access to the equipment, […] that’s great for us because we are able to make the movies like we planned to do,” said Severa.

Although Severa feels enthusiastic about returning to campus, she recognizes the need for more flexibility regarding class options beyond those in person.

“If a teacher can offer a hybrid course, I think it should be done so that everyone is accommodated and feels comfortable with the situation.”

 

Calls for greater flexibility 

On Jan. 13, the Concordia Student Union sent an open letter to the university calling on the university to “offer a fully online or at the very least fully hybrid semester […] ensuring that students do not have to choose between dropping out of all their courses and risking their lives.”

The Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA) echoed the CSU’s concerns in an open letter of their own on Jan. 24.

Addressed to President Graham Carr, CUFA acknowledged that “faculty are divided on the issue of returning to campus.”

The CUFA’s letter pleaded for the postponement of the Feb. 3 return to campus, proposing a gradual return “by bringing smaller classes back first and then gradually adding larger classes as the situation improves.”

In the letter, CUFA  requested “Concordia consider allowing faculty to exercise their judgement and academic freedom to decide what they think is best for them and their students, whether this is to continue teaching remotely to return to in person teaching, or to use a hybrid model.”

“An across-the-board decision of a single return date for all is contrary to the flexibility required to adapt to this ever-changing situation,” wrote the CUFA.

 

Safety concerns 

Concordia’s announcement on Jan. 27 noted that “many measures have [been] put in place during the pandemic to protect the health and safety of the Concordia community.” Among these, the university highlighted the mandatory use of masks indoors and maintenance of ventilation and heating systems.

In a statement to The Concordian, Concordia Spokesperson Vannina Maestracci explained that “all preventative measures implemented by Concordia since the beginning of the pandemic have been in line with the directives and guidelines we receive from the government, including public health authorities, and this is still the case for Winter 2022.”

Contact tracing on Concordia’s campuses continues to take place despite challenges of restricted access to PCR tests in the province, according to Maestracci.

Regardless of the measures Concordia has put into place, several students feel that these are not enough.

Tyler Sedborn, a fourth-year accounting student, feels that returning to campus on Feb. 3 is a “quick move” on Concordia’s behalf.

“Why add risk if you don’t need to? You’re putting a lot of people who may or may not have had it already into one building or two,” said Sedborn. “I think that’s kind of a timebomb.”

In their letter, the CSU condemned the university for their “lack of leadership and clarity regarding the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff”, noting that the previous fall semester “saw a flagrant disregard for social distancing and mask mandates.”

Concordia currently requires a vaccine passport to take part in on-campus events and activities “not linked directly to the university’s academic, research and institutional work.”

“All my classes have 130 plus kids, and I don’t feel safe being in a room with anyone not knowing who’s vaccinated or not,” shared Seb Buche, a fourth-year leisure science student. “As if we didn’t have enough on our plates as students already during a pandemic.”

 

Photograph by Catherine Reynolds

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‘They’re not listening to us’: students express concerns over Concordia’s winter plans

Concordia students express that Concordia’s plans for the winter semester prioritize those who can physically return to campus, while neglecting others

As Concordia plans for a primarily in-person winter semester, some students feel like the university is moving forward while leaving others behind.

According to a public statement released by Concordia Provost and Vice-President Anne Whitelaw, students can expect most of their courses to be in-person or a blend of in-person with online components.

With the exception of eConcordia courses — classes specifically designed for online delivery — students will need to be on campus to take their courses for the winter semester.

The administration’s decision has sparked feelings of neglect among Concordia students for whom making it to Canada in January is not yet a reliable and safe option they can count on.

“With COVID-19 and Delta variants, I don’t feel safe going to campus,” said second-year commerce student Aditi Baldowa.

As a result of health issues she did not want to disclose, Baldowa has been attending her fall courses remotely from her home in Mauritius. On Nov. 8, she was de-registered from her fall classes.

Although Baldowa said she has submitted proof of receiving her study permit, she shared that Concordia’s International Students Office (ISO) has continuously denied her the chance to continue her fall courses, on the premise that she has not physically collected her permit in Canada.

“I don’t see why I should be there,” said Baldowa.

The ISO website states, “All International Students will need upload their immigration documents (CAQ, Study Permit, Passport) through their MyConcordia as soon as they arrive to Canada or as soon as the documents are issued.”

Although her fall courses were on eConcordia did not require her to be physically on campus, she said that this was not enough to keep her enrolled.

“I have tried telling [the ISO] that I have health issues and that I’m not fit to travel for the moment,” she said. “They don’t understand that and only tell me that I need to be there or else they will deregister me.”

After losing one semester, she must retake her fall semester courses this winter. Despite the fact that most of her winter courses are set to be delivered through eConcordia, Baldowa fears the consequences she will face if she does not make her way to Montreal in January.

“I worked so hard for the whole semester, and now all my classes are cancelled,” she said. “If I don’t come, they will deregister me again from my winter term, and that will have a really bad impact on my study permit renewal. I might not get it again after it expires in 2023.”

Baldowa expressed that the university’s actions neglect students’ potential health concerns, such as her own.

“They’re not being supportive at all,” she said. “They are telling us that we can’t have online classes but aren’t considering the fact that some students can’t be there.”

As the countdown to the winter semester continues, Baldowa said she feels restrained by the potentially negative consequences of not coming to Canada in January. With growing concerns for her health, Baldowa feels excluded from the university’s vision for an in-person winter.

When asked how the university’s plans to respond to health and safety protocols concerning their winter semester plans with regard to students with health concerns, University Spokesperson Vannina Maestracci responded that it is “too early to tell” in a statement to The Concordian.

“We are constantly assessing the  evolving pandemic situation and adjusting as needed,” stated Maestracci. “Any change to measures would also be in line with guidelines provided by Public Health with whom we talk regularly. Right now, the existing measures remain in place.”

Another student who has expressed concerns is Jane, who wishes to remain anonymous. As someone with pre-existing health conditions, she feels the university is not doing enough to accommodate the concerns of students like herself, who are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of the virus.

“They’re not asking the students what they want,” she said. “If they’d actually take the time and listen to the students, they would provide those that can’t be here with another option.”

Jane is diabetic, asthmatic, and suffers from anxiety. She said she has not felt safe to take a bus since the start of the pandemic and is just now beginning to leave her house for walks and trips to the grocery store.

“It’s step by step,” she said. “Being among a whole lot of people raises the anxiety factor to a whole other level.”

Making her way to school where not everyone may be fully vaccinated is a daunting thought for Jane. Coupled with the fear of catching the virus, she feels that the university is treating the winter semester as a pandemic-free slate.

“It’s still the pandemic; we’re not finished,” she said. “If you have a bunch of people that aren’t vaccinated, you’re going to end up with a lot of people externally sick if it [COVID] gets passed around.”

Concordia does not presently have a vaccine policy for attending classes. However, Concordia Health Services strongly recommends getting vaccinated.

Although Jane has been able to attend her courses online this semester thanks to accommodations provided by her professors, she fears that her health issues will force her to delay the completion of her degree.

Maestracci has shared with The Concordian that such concerns should be “addressed by departments — since it is impossible to have a one size fits all approach as there will be variations across departments as well as differences depending on the course.”

The extent of how the university’s current health and safety protocols will carry out this winter is another concern for students. Some say Concordia’s COVID-19 prevention policies have not been adhered to enough this fall.

“I see how many people don’t wear masks properly or don’t wear masks at all when they’re supposed to be,” said Lauren Friesen, a first-year history student at Concordia. “If people aren’t really abiding by the rules now, then come January, it’s just going to get a lot worse.”

Friesen worries about the unexpected consequences of students returning from winter break. “I just fear that there’s going to be another breakout, especially over winter and Christmas time,” she said. “I feel like they should be prepping for the worst case rather than the absolute best case scenario.”

While Friesen does not consider herself at any particular health risk, she recognizes the frustration that students with health concerns are facing.

“I feel like moving almost everything in-person is kind of ignoring those students,” she said.

Despite some of the challenges that certain students are facing, the move to an in-person winter semester comes as a much-needed change of pace for others.

“It’s been so long,” said Anika Michalko, a first-year behavioural neuroscience student. “I’m very excited to be able to do more in-class projects and exchange ideas with people a lot more.”

While Michalko doesn’t consider themselves touched by health and travel issues, they agree on Concordia’s responsibility to help accommodate students impacted by such obstacles.

“Having recorded lectures is super essential,” said Michalko. “I think that would help out people a lot.”

The winter 2022 class schedule is expected to be finalized later in November. Once published, current and prospective students will be given the chance to enroll in their designated classes, set to begin on Jan. 6.

 

Photograph by Lily Cowper

A previous version of this article stated that “We are constantly evolving the pandemic and adjusting as needed,” stated Maestracci. An edit has been made to the article to reflect the original quote, which said “We are constantly assessing the evolving pandemic situation and adjusting as needed.”

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