Omicron concerns halt return to campus

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Whatever you say, Bettina Morgan Ortman

Many residents already moved in

A smooth return to campus has been halted by rising cases of the highly transmissible COVID-19 Omicron variant. On December 21, the University of Regina announced that the first two weeks of the Winter 2022 term will pivot to online delivery. The semester start was delayed from January 5 to January 8 to allow instructors, who had prepared for face-to-face courses, to adjust to the temporary online shift.

In an address to the University of Regina, President Jeff Keshen announced that this action was necessary, but that the university still hopes to return to “near-normal operations” for the remainder of the term. “We ask for your patience as we work through the numerous details associated with this transition,” said Keshen. “I appreciate and understand that a temporary shift to remote teaching and working will mean additional work for all members of our community. That said, we have done this before, and have learned a great deal about remote teaching and learning during the previous waves of the pandemic.”

News of the temporary shift to online learning comes as a worry to some students. Students who live on campus for the Winter 2022 term had the opportunity to move into their dormitories earlier to reduce transmission of the Omicron variant. Official move-in times for residence began on December 15, six days before the shift to online learning was determined.

Landen Boisvert, a Kinesiology student majoring in Human Kinetics, is entering the second term of his third year and had already moved into his dormitory when the shift to online learning was made. “It was tough to read the email,” said Boisvert. “I had already moved my things into my room and had just returned home for Christmas. When I saw the email, my heart dropped.”

Boisvert has not been back on campus since the pandemic first began in March of 2020. For financial reasons, he chose to live at home where there was more accessibility to fitness facilities. Boisvert is now concerned about what online learning could look like in residence if the temporary shift becomes permanent. 

“I’m not a student that thrives doing online,” he said. “I love that atmosphere that the university gives off. So, when I got stuck at home, it made me feel like I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I could have been in in-person classes.”

Boisvert expressed his concerns that the entire semester may end up being delivered remotely if the Omicron variant continues to spread. He said that if classes were to return to online for the remainder of the semester, he would continue his classes from his home town. “Everything in residence is somewhat expensive,” he said. “Saving money, and not taking out any more money on my loan is beneficial in the long run.”

While Boisvert said that he understood that not everyone’s experience with online learning was like his, he explains how he feels like he “missed out” on “pivotal” experiences that could have taken place in-person during his second year and the Fall semester of 2021.

Despite concerns about the shift to online learning while living in on campus, Boisvert said he feel safe with “little to no concern” about the Omicron variant because of policies Housing Services have implemented to keep students and staff safe. In an emailed statement from Bettina Welsh, Director of Student Affairs Operations, she explained the administration’s decision to implement a vaccine mandate: 

“The University along with Housing Services implemented a vaccine mandate for those who were choosing to reside on campus. Students were also allowed the opportunity to submit a medical exemption for the University to review as we understood there may be some situations in which students could not be vaccinated. This vaccination protocol has been widely accepted by both students and staff and has contributed to an increased level of health safety when on the University campus.”

Hannah Tait, President of the University of Regina Students’ Union (URSU), explains that she believes the two-week transitional period will be beneficial in returning to campus. “It was a bit of relief because seeing the rising case numbers, and all of the uncertainty taking a step back will be beneficial for campus,” said Tait. She also explained that the URSU is aiming to help guide students through uncertainty while the transitional period occurs.

“As that two-week online learning announcement was made hundreds of international students arrived from other countries. They’ve moved across the world and it’s uncertain about what’s going to happen,” she said. Tait also expressed concern about international students who will have to quarantine for two weeks, only to end up taking classes in the confinements of their own room. URSU has held student halls throughout the previous semesters to listen to concerns students have.

Tait said there are many ways that URSU is providing students with extra stability throughout these unprecedented times. Emergency bursaries for students are available for application on the URSU website. “What is defined as an emergency can be broad because it’s important to recognize that not every student is living at home with their parents working, not working a part time job or just taking classes. So, the emergency bursary criteria really recognizes the diverse needs of our students,” said Tait.

URSU is providing rapid tests for students at their front desk, which is located on second floor of Riddell Centre. Other services like URSU Cares provide students with food security through the community fridge and pantry. URSU Thrifts also provides second-hand clothing to keep students warm during the winter. All URSU’s services are applicable to all students, not just those living in residence.

While URSU is providing social programming support, Housing Services is keeping COVID-19 restrictions tight to keep transmission rates low. Protocols that exist within residence were made with careful decision to keep students and staff safe. Welsh explained through email that international students are allowed to quarantine within residence if they were selected for testing upon arrival into Canada. They must quarantine upon arrival for two weeks in a monitored, isolated block, away from the student population.

Sanitation measures have been enforced in high touch areas to be cleaned with Oxivir disinfectant at minimum twice a day, although since COVID-19 is an airborne pathogen, sanitizing surfaces is not an effective means of protection. Housekeeping and custodial staff must wear masks and gloves for the protection of themselves and others. All students, staff, and faculty are required to wear masks in public areas which include elevators and stairwells.

“We are very proud of the services we continue to provide to our students and we continue to implement all decisions made by the University leadership in order to provide a safe living and working environment for our students and staff,” said Welsh.

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