Last week on March 3, York President Rhonda Lenton released an announcement that said the university is currently planning for a safe and potential return to campuses in the fall 2021 term, while remaining “flexible” given the pandemic’s unpredictable nature. However, the announcement also stated that remote learning will still be accessible for students who “may face health or travel restrictions.”
The university plans to bring back as many classes and co-curricular opportunities as possible, “while also prioritizing health and safety for all students, faculty, course instructors, and staff. Classes held on campus will be delivered in a small group format that maximizes interactive learning,” Lenton wrote in the announcement.
Excalibur spoke to the administration, faculty, students, and members of the broader community this week to find out what exactly is in the cards for the fall 2021 term, and how the community is feeling about this information.
WHAT WE KNOW
York’s Deputy Spokesperson Yanni Dagonas tells Excalibur that planning is “well underway,” and that York has brought together experts from across the university in order to develop a “mix of on-campus and remote learning options.”
“We look toward the fall with optimism,” he says, citing the ongoing vaccine rollout as a factor in York’s outlook. “We are encouraged by the growing evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and that, as more people are immunized, the severity and rate of COVID-19 is reduced.”
As for what York would do in the instance of a potential outbreak during the reopening process, Dagonas says their outlook is bolstered by York’s track record so far. “The university’s approach to reducing risk has been effective in keeping those on campus safe so far, and this experience will be invaluable in our return to campus. We are proud of our success in preventing cases of COVID-19 on our campuses.
“In any scenario where a positive COVID-19 diagnosis is reported to the university, we liaise closely with Toronto Public Health and follow their guidance, providing all necessary information to help them with contact tracing,” he adds. “Toronto Public Health also assesses if there is a community risk of transmission, and the university adheres to the direction provided in order to mitigate any identified risk.”
While Dagonas stresses that the personal information regarding any COVID-19 cases on campus would be kept “strictly confidential,” he says York is committed to being “transparent with our community about confirmed cases.”
When inquiring about the status of online classes, Dagonas states that providing a range of class options for students this coming fall will be essential, ensuring that in-person learning opportunities will be offered along with remote learning for those facing health or travel restrictions.
“Course enrolments will not be restricted,” Dagonas adds. “Rather, our planning focuses on how we can bring students together on campus in smaller group settings, allowing them to enjoy some of the personal connections they have been missing.”
Along with in-person classes, Dagonas says that the university is paying close attention to reintroducing other aspects of campus life, including libraries, food services, and gym services. He states that these reopenings will be done with “careful consideration of the appropriate public health guidance and protocols.”
“It has been tough being physically separated from professors, teaching assistants, and classmates…”
Tom Rakocevic, MPP for Humber River-Black Creek (York’s) riding, emphasizes the academic stressors that have been placed on university students as they have waited to return to in-person learning. “Post-secondary students have suffered greatly throughout this pandemic,” he says.
“It has been tough being physically separated from professors, teaching assistants, and classmates, and we are all looking forward to a time when students are able to get back into their classrooms as long as all safety precautions are taken to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.”
York faculty and community members have responded to the reopening news by sharing how the fall 2021 term will logistically welcome students and staff back to campus while remaining conscious of public health.
Mary Condon, Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, outlines that they will continue to follow university health guidelines moving forward, including concerns regarding physical distancing and the wearing of masks.
“We are currently considering how much in-person instruction we can safely provide in the fall,” states Condon. “We are also giving a high priority to providing extra-curricular opportunities for new and returning students to have in-person contact in small groups.”
According to Marcia Annisette, associate dean of academic for Schulich School of Business, while the details of York’s fall reopening are still in the works, Schulich plans to offer as many optional in-person classes for as many programs as possible. Annisette adds that Schulich’s goal is to also maintain “enhanced online access for those students who continue to require this mode of delivery.”
“From a college council perspective this news is both exciting yet something we are taking very seriously,” says Boyan Demchuk, president of Winters College Council. Demchuk explains how Winters’ Absinthe Pub and Coffee Shop has been closed due to the pandemic, and hopes for it to safely reopen come the fall semester.
He adds that the college council looks forward to bringing back some welcomed normalcy in the coming academic year as we learn more about the next steps, “while keeping in mind the safety of our constituency” and providing “our community with the support and love that we always have.”
York students have expressed a mosaic of feelings in response to the announcement. Some are joyous and excited, while others approach the news warily.
“I definitely think if the university takes the right precautions, it would help a lot. I’m one of those people where being in a school atmosphere sets me in the right mindset,” says Majeed Zabonsre, president of Founders College Council. “I’ve had conversations with students who say it’s hard for them to mentally prepare for school when they’re at home.”
For students whose programs require hands-on activities such as certain arts programs, sciences, or students with content-heavy classes, this is welcome news at long last.
“There are those courses where it’s so heavy content-based that being at home to learn the content is not the same as being in an actual classroom,” adds Zabonsre.
“Winters College is primarily made up of students enrolled in the School of AMPD. Due to that, a large amount of our typical coursework is done in the studio, so to hear that there are plans to be back on campus to a bigger extent next year is exciting for many of us,” says Demchuk. “We do hope York will still make sure to prioritize the health and safety of our students.”
Brittany Ramgolam, a third-year professional writing student, says thinking about potential safety issues with the reopening gives her reservations. “I don’t think it’s a good idea because we aren’t vaccinated yet and don’t really know when we will be.”
Ramgolam adds that as a commuter student, two-hour rides on a “crammed TTC” will be difficult after this period of relative safety. “I would 100 per cent like to stay online because I feel safer at home, but also I’ve been doing much better in my school work in a much quieter environment.”
“The community has been patient with online learning and one false step this close to the finish line could push back the efforts of last year a long way.”
As for what it would take for her to feel safe returning to York, “after spending a year inside I would need York to have a solid plan to keep us safe. If there were to be a breakout, what will they do to control it?”
Vikram Singh, president of Calumet College Council, stresses the importance of a solid plan, noting that a failed return to school could be a major setback.
“I sincerely hope that the university has thought this through. The community has been patient with online learning and one false step this close to the finish line could push back the efforts of last year a long way,” says Singh.
Third-year business administration student Khalid Desai says the reinstatement of in-class learning from York serves as “implicit reassurance it’s going to be okay.” However, he thinks there are positives and negatives to both online and on-campus learning.
“In-class would improve socializing but increase exposure, and online would provide safer conditions but decrease social life,” he says. “For me, the best approach to continue education at this time is in a safe environment. Virtual learning ensures this by providing public safety to staff and students, while limiting the ongoing contagion.”
However, if the upcoming fall term is well planned and students feel there is a secure system in place, it does seem as though they will respond very positively.
“I think it will be great to have everybody back on campus and getting back to the semblance of life pre-pandemic. The students seem excited to be back on campus and I hope the transition is smooth,” says Singh.
The reopening of campus begins the long journey back to normalcy for York’s residents. Many students, however, are still grappling the financial losses they have been faced during the pandemic. Rakocevic explains that student job losses have caused immense anxiety for those who are struggling in paying their student loans.
“Students who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own should not be burdened with this enormous debt,” says Rakocevic. “This is why the New Democratic Party (NDP) continues to call upon the Ford government to immediately provide $1,000 of direct support to full-time students, $500 of direct support for all part-time students, and for CESB and CERB payments to be exempt from OSAP calculations.”
Rakocevic explains that the NDP is calling on the Ford government not only to forgive interest on all existing student loans for postsecondary students during the pandemic, but to also turn OSAP loans to grants.
As a commuter school, York students are no strangers to the transportation concerns that come with traveling to and from campus. As Ramgolam previously expressed, crammed TTC rides bring about a cause for concern when thinking of safely returning to campuses in the fall.
Stuart Green, TTC senior communications specialist in media relations and issues management, states that they have “seasonal service that corresponds with school calendars” and are in regular contact with educational services to plan their service.
“We are committed to delivering the best and most flexible service possible to all parts of the city and all customers based on available resources,” Green continues.
While York has decisively announced its intention to begin the process of reopening, it is still in the planning stage. This, coupled with the uncertainty of the pandemic, means concrete details as to how the transition will occur are still forthcoming.
“As more is known, we will continue to update the community by email and encourage everyone to regularly check the YU Better Together website for updates on how and when courses, services and amenities will safely reopen,” says Dagonas.
The following individuals could not be reached for comment or did not provide a comment at the time of publication: Executive Director of Athletics & Recreation Jennifer Myers, Glendon Principal Marco A. Fiola, and Director of Residence Life Daryl Nauman.
With interviews and files from Mahdis Habibinia.