Edmonton post-secondary schools grapple with what COVID-19 means for fall semester

Post-secondary uncertainty in Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: Edmonton's major post-secondary institutions have been developing plans for how to deliver classes come September. As Sarah Ryan explains, for at least one school — it's likely online learning will continue.

With all the uncertainty around the novel coronavirus pandemic and what it will look like in the coming months, post-secondary students and faculty are in limbo when it comes to what will happen this September.

Although it’s not official quite yet, Concordia University of Edmonton’s President Tim Loreman said his 3,300 students should expect more virtual learning.

“At the moment, it looks very much like face-to-face classes, for the most part, are going to be out of the question.”

Loreman explained that while the vast majority of classes will likely be online, some — which are harder to teach on the computer — may be exempt. As an example, he said labs may take place in person, but with small class sizes to allow for physical distancing.

READ MORE: Fall classes will mostly be done online amid COVID-19, some Canadian universities say

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That distancing is much more difficult to enforce in residences. Loreman says those will not reopen on Concordia’s campus this fall.

“If we were to open our residence for the fall and there were to be a breakout of COVID-19, there would be lots of problems for us,” he said.

“I’ve heard them described as a cruise ship, except they’re a cruise ship you can get off and spread any virus in the community.”

If students need to physically be in Edmonton, the school will help them find accommodations.

Loreman said he believes this is the safest approach, and one he says will allow all students to take part in.

“There is a potential for a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall and we don’t want to be caught in a situation where we’ve decided to go face to face and then at very short notice, as happened in the winter semester, we need to clear our campus and go online.”

Just under one-third of Concordia’s students are from outside of Alberta.

The president explained it’s important to make decisions sooner, rather than later.

“That’s because students have to plan their lives for the fall semester. Some may be living outside of the province or outside of the country. We also need to give our instructors time to provide high quality classes – whether that’s face-to-face or online.”

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U of A not planning for all students to return to campus in the fall
U of A not planning for all students to return to campus in the fall

University of Alberta‘s Student Union President, Joel Agarwal, agrees. He said there’s anxiety about what will happen.

“Students are worried. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the times ahead. There’s a lot of new approaches to learning.”

The University of Alberta has a plethora of students who would need to make travel and living arrangements if they’re expected to be physically on campus.

“About 50 per cent of our undergraduate students on campus are not from Edmonton,” Agarwal said.

He said he was told to expect more on a decision from the University of Alberta on May 15.

Officially, university communications representative Michael Brown said: “The U of A is still developing its plans for Fall 2020 and no decisions have been made yet.”

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READ MORE: U of A not planning for all students to return to campus in fall amid COVID-19 pandemic

Agarwal noted continued virtual learning poses concerns for low-income students.

“Vulnerable populations – parts of our campus that may not have access to proper internet bandwidth are definitely going to be impacted by this.”

Post-secondary institutions in Alberta urge students to vacate residences over COVID-19 outbreak.
Post-secondary institutions in Alberta urge students to vacate residences over COVID-19 outbreak.

Sean Waddingham, president of the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU), said there’s similar issues for anyone living outside a major city.

“Anyone who’s in a rural area, suddenly you’re disadvantaged to taking online lectures and tests. Obviously, internet is important when you’re taking online tests.”

But both Agarwal and Waddingham agree the number one priority is keeping everyone healthy.

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“The concern about health and safety is first, and that’s what we’re going to pursue for now,” Waddingham said.

SAMU sent out a survey to students two weeks ago, asking for their input on what the fall semester should look like. Waddingham intends to bring those results to administration.

“All kinds of things: financial resources, where you live – rural or urban and around the world – can be huge factors in how much this impacts you.”

READ MORE: 67% of Canadian students worry they won’t get a job due to COVID-19: StatsCan

Samantha Powers, media relations advisor for MacEwan University, sent a statement to Global News.

“At MacEwan, we are still working out the scenarios for fall and consulting with our academic community. We expect to have an academic plan in place by the end of May,” she wrote.

“We know that this fall will look and feel different on our campus for everyone.

“We also know that due to the COVID-19 situation we will offer as much content as possible online. The final plan will be dependent on many factors, including the provincial relaunch strategy, and will be subject to change as the situation evolves. But first and foremost, we are focusing on the safety of our students and staff.”

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Global News also reached out to NAIT for its plans come September.

“NAIT leadership is currently reviewing options for the fall 2020 term, in consultation with the province. No decisions have been made at this point,” wrote external communication lead Bryan Alary.

The University of King’s is also waiting.

“No final decision has been made yet about the mode of delivery for classes this fall.

“We are making preparations to offer courses online but also hope to have some programming in-person,” wrote director of marketing, Nikolas Vander Kooy.

“Timing of final decisions will be dependent on the outcome of Alberta’s relaunch plans and future recommendations made by the ministry of Advanced Education and Chief Medical Officer. We will share our plans with students at the earliest opportunity possible. The university will prioritize the well-being, health, and safety of students, faculty, and staff in whatever decisions are made.”