Students, universities prepare for holiday travel outside Atlantic Canada during a pandemic

A sign marks one of the entrances to the St. Francis Xavier University campus in Antigonish, N.S., on September 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – Ally Hancock, a fourth-year student at Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University, said she’s a bit apprehensive about her flight back home to Toronto for the upcoming holiday break.

“I’ll be nervous going on a plane. My mom’s telling me to wear two masks, but I think it’ll be fine,” Hancock said in a recent interview, adding that after a long semester stationed in the province, she’s looking forward to seeing family.

“I’m really close to my mom, so it’s always been a really big priority to go back to see her.”

Like many other students in Atlantic Canada, Hancock is planning on leaving to see family outside of the region, a trip she’s taken every year since she enrolled at the university. But this year, her travel is shadowed by fears over travelling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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Nova Scotia chief medical officer Dr. Robert Strang has encouraged post-secondary students to stay in the province if possible, but said if they do leave Nova Scotia, they’ll need to remain vigilant.

“There’s a lot more COVID in other parts of the country,” Strang said during a COVID-19 update Tuesday.

“We recognize the importance of, for their own mental health, travelling home for the holidays,” Strang said, adding that all students would still need to complete a 14-day quarantine upon returning to Nova Scotia.

Some universities in the region have decided to put off the start of the winter semester to help accommodate students who need to self-isolate.

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At St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., some 1,000 students are expected to leave the Atlantic area for the holiday break, spokeswoman Cindy MacKenzie said in an email.

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Students who live in residence will be able to stay during the break at an additional cost of $250, she said, while those who leave the Atlantic region will be held to the province’s strict quarantine rules when they return to school.

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“The university is requesting that students from outside the Atlantic bubble return to campus or their off-campus accommodations to begin a 14-day isolation period on January 4/5th,” Mackenzie said. All classes will start virtually on Jan. 13 before in-person classes resume Jan. 20.

MacKenzie said all students have been asked to give the school their holiday travel plans so it can properly organize isolation support for those who will need it in the new year.

Similar protocols are being put in place at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.

Media relations officer Laura Dillman said in an email the school is delaying the start of the winter semester to allow for isolation time and shortening the weeklong break that would usually happen in the middle of the semester.

“About 60 per cent of Mount Allison’s students are from outside the province,” Dillman said, “although we do not anticipate everyone will be leaving the province for the holidays, given the circumstances this year around travelling.”

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Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., has also built time into the holiday break to allow for the two-week isolation period.

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Acadia communications manager Sherri Turner said the mandatory quarantine is to start between Jan. 1 and Jan. 4, with the semester is set to start on Jan. 18. Students will be provided meals and supervised outdoor time for exercise while isolating.

For Claudia Nieuwland, a fourth year student at Acadia, travelling home to just outside Barrie, Ont., for this break does raise concerns – especially considering Ontario’s rising case count of the novel coronavirus – but she’s looking forward to getting away from school.

“It’s really important for me to be with my family, so I couldn’t imagine spending Christmas here alone in my dorm room,” Nieuwland said in a recent interview.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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