Ontario college students facing graduation uncertainty over field placements as pandemic continues

The exterior of Centennial College in Toronto. File / Google Streetview

As Ontario approaches a year since the initial massive government-imposed lockdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, the ripples of the pandemic continue to be felt across the province’s post-secondary institutions.

And as thousands of students work on finishing their final semesters, some with health considerations say they’re facing the agonizing choice of protecting personal safety by staying out of congregate settings or completing mandatory field placements in order to graduate.

Kelly Jones is in the fourth semester of Centennial College’s early childhood education (ECE) program, which on paper should be the final semester. An important requirement of the program is the completion of a two-week practicum in a child-care setting, so some students may have to take the required course in a fifth semester or in a third year.

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Jones, who said her mother has multiple sclerosis and father has cancer, is on the verge of securing a job immediately after school, but she cannot get the needed ECE certification unless she gets the required field experience.

“My parents are very concerned. I talked to them and I can see fear in their eyes as I tell them I might have to go into placement,” she told Global News in an interview.

“It’s like either go out into the field, risk my health and potentially get it … (I’m) definitely going back and forth between education and health.”

Jones went on to describe how a number of students she knows who were supposed to graduate in April are still waiting to do so because various lockdowns have impacted their ability to fulfill the requirements needed to get their diplomas.

“If they’ve been held back and they’ve had almost a year to take care of it, it really worries me because if this continues the way that it does what does it mean for me? Do I have to wait an additional year?” she asked.

Should Jones wait beyond the summer, she said she might need to find alternative living arrangements as her parents plan on moving to eastern Ontario to retire — posing an extra financial burden. The practicum itself, however, was already paid for and wouldn’t be an additional cost.

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And Jones isn’t the only one in her particular program who said they are facing a difficult decision. She said international students who have time-limited visas or are only budgeted to be in school until the end of April are facing challenges too.

Meanwhile, Marieka Meulensteen is supposed to be going to university in September and she said she won’t be able to unless she completes the prerequisites to get her diploma. However, she said she has asthma and is one of the few people who can visit and care for her 93-year-old grandmother.

“They’ve been asking since September that we as students be very flexible with them as they figure out what we’re doing and this semester we be very flexible and we see what happens, but there’s no longer any room for flexibility on the part of the students in my opinion,” she said.

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Meulensteen, like Jones, called for the college to work harder at providing alternative options for students to help them complete their programs, such as actively arranging for more virtual field placements.

For instance, while Kindergarten classes have been operating virtually, Meulensteen questioned why can’t she and others join-in on those for placements — especially for those facing dire considerations. She also asked why students who came to Toronto from other parts of the country can’t return home and eventually do their placements locally.

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Both students said they and others feel the options are limited despite being told by school staff that individual cases will be assessed and considered.

For its part, Centennial College issued an outline to students with an alternative field placement course for early childhood education students: two modules of health and safety training and a simulated field practicum.

However, students will be required to do a 10-day consecutive community field placement and each student will be provided a 10-day supply of masks and face shields.

“[The community placement] adheres to the requirements of the Ministry of Education in the Safe Reopening guidelines regarding cohorting, which means if you are working in the toddler room you cannot even cross paths with a staff or child in another room,” the document said in part.
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“Students who choose not to complete the Field Practicum this semester will be encouraged to withdraw from the course and any co-requisites related it.

“Should there be a concern with active infections within a child care centre, students would not return to that placement and alternative arrangements would be made to complete the placement at a later time. Likewise, if a student becomes ill during a field placement, they would end that placement and would continue a placement at a later time.”

Patricia Hunt, the chair that oversees Centennial College’s ECE program, told Global News the institution is “very aware” of the concerns raised and that the school for months has tried to rework all of its programs to support students in response to COVID-19.

When asked about the possibility of doing a virtual placement instead of going in person, she said the profession’s regulatory body, the College of Early Childhood Educators, requires a minimum number of hours in the field with three different age groups — something that’s universal for all public college programs.

Hunt said while two-thirds of the course has gone virtual, 10 days are still required.

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“Child care has been open since last summer and has been running across the province since last summer,” Hunt said.

“When students go on placement … they have WSIB coverage as part-and-parcel of being in a program of study that requires a field practicum. They also have had training from Toronto Public Health as well as the ministry in the safe reopening guidelines in all of the use of PPE in child care centres.

“We are doing absolutely everything we can, including we have reduced the number of time they are going to spend in a field placement.”

When asked about students who might want to work in other jurisdictions, Hunt said there are only affiliation agreements with child care centres in Toronto.

Global News contacted the College of Early Childhood Educators to ask about the requirements for on-site placements. A spokesperson said accommodating medical concerns is up to each educational institution and that each institution needs to deliver programs in accordance with Ontario Ministry of College and Universities standards.

“While practical experience is an important component of post-secondary ECE programs, there may be temporary changes to field placements as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those changes are determined by the colleges offering the programs,” Madelyn Herschorn said in a statement.

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“Where the pandemic has disrupted field placements, college programs are responsible for developing and implementing strategies to address gaps in practical experience.”

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

When asked for comment about the issue, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano touted in a statement that there was a tuition freeze for 2020-2021 and promoted OSAP for certain expenses. There are also some bursaries available.

However, when it comes to possible broader changes to requirements, the statement said it falls to colleges implement the curriculum and the requirements for placements in concert with regulatory bodies.

“We recognize experiential learning opportunities provide valuable experiences for students and that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced postsecondary institutions to implement modified curriculum,” Scott Clark wrote.

“The government encourages institutions and sector partners to work together to ensure students meet their program requirements and keep the health and safety of the population in mind.”

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