Coronavirus: How Ontario colleges and universities are trying to protect campus residence students

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As elementary and secondary school boards across Ontario finalize plans for the upcoming year amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many post-secondary students will be moving into campus residences in the coming days to get ready for their academic year.

“Move-in to residence is always a challenge every year, but this year for sure has been incredibly challenging,” Rachelle Clark, director of housing services for the University of Ottawa (uOttawa), told Global News.

“We’ve been working with ever-changing and evolving information, and so you might make a plan one day that changes based on new information coming out from public health the next day.”

When asked for the guidelines for reopening, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Training said the province’s 45 post-secondary institutions were allowed to reopen for in-person instruction using physical distancing guidelines and adhering to capacity limits.

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But when it comes to operations, the ministry deemed colleges and universities autonomous, leaving it to each institution to develop policies for campus and residence facilities. That decision has meant staff at those institutions working with Ontario’s nearly three dozen public health units to inform their planning.

Global News spoke with several post-secondary institutions to get a sense of schools are preparing to welcome students to campus residences across Ontario.

Staggered residence move-ins to take place

Clark said UOttawa normally sees approximately 4,200 students move into the school’s 11 residence buildings. This year, she said demand for on-campus housing has fallen substantially — noting around 1,000 students will be moving into five buildings over nine days.

Students were required to attend online training sessions before their move-in dates and they were required to sign an addendum to the standard residence agreement, outlining expectations and requirements for following COVID-19-related directives.

“All of the residents that are living in residence are our responsibility, and so we will do whatever is necessary to ensure their ongoing health and safety and if that means being stricter in the application of our consequences then we will do so,” Clark said.

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Humber College in Toronto also reported a drop in residence enrolment as it opens its doors daily in two-hour increments for six students at a time to move in until Sept. 8. In past years, the North and Lakeshore campuses could accommodate a combined 1,445 students.

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With COVID-19 precautions, those maximums were cut to 364 students at the North campus and 220 at the Lakeshore campus. But a spokesperson said demand bottomed out and there are currently less than 300 students at both campuses.

At Fanshawe College in London, Ont., the school is taking an even more gradual approach to move-in. Two students at a time will receive an hour-long slot to move their belongings into their units — 45 minutes for the actual move and the last 15 minutes for disinfecting any high-touch surfaces those students came into contact with.

International students are getting early timeslots in order to allow for a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Queen’s University in Kingston will see its staggered move-in period begin on Tuesday and it will run until the end of the week. About 2,300 students will be in residences for the 2020-2021 and approximately 400 students moving in a day. The university and the local public health department are asking any students coming to Kingston from a region with active transmissions to get tested for coronavirus before leaving for school.

Officials advised all new students to avoid contact with anyone outside their immediate household for the first two weeks after arriving. All first-year students living in residences will be in single rooms and will have access to the university dining hall. Anyone else travelling from outside the region is asked to bring 14 days’ worth of supplies with them to lessen any contact with people in the community.

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What changes will students see after moving into residence?

While there are varying policies, several schools said mandatory mask policies were put in place for common areas. Also, many schools have banned visitors from residences.

When it comes to building occupancy, Clark said OPH recommended having no more than two students to one bathroom— adding many units are one student and one washroom. Gatherings and using common areas are prohibited. She said cafeterias and food halls will also change, noting self-serve food is out and the number of seats will be greatly reduced.

Clark said uOttawa also hired 125 community ambassadors as well as an unspecified number of extra cleaners to help implement the COVID-19 plan.

At Ryerson University in Toronto, where students moved in on Sunday and Monday, staff have restricted residence spaces to ensure each student has their own washroom. However, when it comes to common spaces, those appeared to remain open but with occupancy limits.

At Fanshawe College, a spokesperson said cleaning procedures have been stepped up and staff are working to ensure students are educated on that school’s COVID-19 policies. However, the spokesperson said they will be working with City of London bylaw officers “if there are any bylaw infractions or student code of conduct issues.”

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Students at Humber College without a private washroom suite will be assigned, along with one other student, a specific toilet, sink and shower for use. Common washrooms are set to be cleaned twice a day. Group gatherings and most common areas will be closed off for use.

Queen’s University said it has expanded its number of custodians and will be using electrostatic sprayers in large common areas to treat surfaces.

If a student should contract COVID-19, each school will need to defer to their isolation plan.

At uOttawa, the school has arranged for a COVID-19 assessment centre to be on campus and it will be available for students and staff to get tested for coronavirus should they develop one or more symptoms. Fanshawe College is currently looking at establishing an assessment centre. Humber College highlighted self-isolation units will be available for students who become sick.

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If a student needs to isolate due to testing positive or because they were in contact with someone who tested positive, Clark said they will be moved into their own unit if they aren’t in a private unit. She said three meals will be delivered a day and there will be regular remote check-ins.

“We are going to rely on them to follow those measures. We have faith and confidence in our students … but we know that we can’t eliminate risk completely,” Clark said.

Public health guidelines for reopening

In Ottawa, for instance, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) said ultimately it is up to each institution’s governing authority to approve reopening and housing plans.

A spokesperson said OPH staff have recommended mandatory mask policies for anyone entering residence buildings, recording contact information for later tracing if need be, posting information and screening signage, setting up protocols for elevator usage, increase cleaning of common areas, virtual student welcome events, and providing COVID-19-related training as part of campus orientation.

READ MORE: What you can and cannot do in Ontario amid Stage 3 of reopening

In Toronto, Toronto Public Health issued a 13-page guidance document to local institutions that echoes many of the recommendations by OPH.

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For the latest advice and guidance being provided to a post-secondary institution, check with the local public health department.

— With files from Alexandra Mazur

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