With the recent spike in the Omicron variant of COVID-19 cases, York has announced plans for a delayed return to campus for January 31, as opposed to the earlier proposed date of January 24. Currently, Ontario cases are plateauing at around 850,000 while access to PCR tests is restricted to prioritized groups and are in high demand — thus turning current case reports into even foggier estimates, as reported by CBC News earlier this week.
As of January 5, Ontario has moved back to Step Two of its Roadmap to Reopen with modifications, in hopes that “these time-limited measures will help blunt transmission and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed as the province continues to accelerate its booster dose rollout. As part of the province’s response to the Omicron variant, starting January 5, students will pivot to remote learning,” explained the Office of the Premier in an announcement made just a few days beforehand.
Toronto Public Health has also urged Ontario residents to receive their third shot (also referred to as a booster shot) regardless of the brand in a recent Global News article citing anxieties towards vaccine mixing as a common deterrent.
On January 6, York announced its response to the growing concerns around the Omicron variant by implementing remote learning from January 10 to January 31 a mere four days before the term started, just shortly after announcing a January 24 return. The Province, however, only requires that publicly funded and private schools move to remote learning from January 5 to January 17.
As restrictions and cases grow and testing depletes, it remains vague as to whether or not classes will resume and York’s campus will actually open for January 31, with students remaining divided on the issue.
“Since the Omicron variant is more transmissible and infectious, if we were to sit in a lecture hall there is a very high chance of transmission. Although my mental health and other students’ mental health is suffering, I honestly think we should do remote learning for the winter term so that York can actually create a safe plan and implement more safety measures for when students return in September,” says Saira Janjua, a first-year psychology student.
Adam Galejs, a second-year political science major, states, “I don’t think it will be safe for us to return to school this winter semester. Hospitalizations are surging and I don’t think it would be responsible to bring tens of thousands of people on campus when it can be easily done online.”
Christina Fernando, a third-year psychology student in support of the return highlights the serious impacts remote learning has had not only on students’ mental and physical health, but their fiscal health as well.
“Financially, many long-distance domestic students like myself and many international students had to find last-minute housing in a matter of four weeks to prepare for the upcoming term. Many had to sign full 12-month leases and put costly down payments in Toronto’s rental market for rooms that are now sitting empty accruing expensive rental fees with this last-minute change,” says Fernando.
Fernando adds that many visas and plane tickets that have already been purchased by students in preparation for a return to campus are non-refundable, and that with tuition not yet being adjusted for an online term, they say that “these are just more expenses the student is supposed to shoulder atop OSAP and other educational expenses.”
While also citing difficulties that upper-year students encounter in terms of networking, obtaining in-lab and volunteer work, and thesis and capstone completion, Fernando cites that “many students also live outside of the Toronto time zone and have to disorganize their circadian rhythms to attend online classes, which is a known mental health detriment.
“We forget that it’s not the pandemic vs nothing, it’s the pandemic vs other health impairments caused by the response to COVID-19, such as the rise in addiction issues, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obesity etc. I think if we did a cost/benefit analysis, going online again is a detriment to the collective health and well-being of students,” Fernando continues.
The Province’s handling of the Omicron surge and York’s ongoing plan revisions haven’t appeared to comfort students’ worries. Many students have expressed a need for a more concrete picture of the term to fully decide whether or not they wish to remain enrolled in their winter courses to avoid fee and grade penalties. As of writing, however, the January 31 return to campus date remains.