Alberta post-secondary institutions told to prepare for full on-campus return this September

The University of Alberta pictured in Edmonton Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Global News

Alberta’s minister of advanced education said post-secondary institutions in the province should prepare for a full return to on-campus learning this September.

Minister Demetrios Nicolaides issued a statement Thursday evening.

“Alberta’s COVID-19 immunization program continues to move forward. As per recent announcements by the minister of health, we anticipate that we will offer every adult Albertan their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of June,” he said.

“With that in mind, I encourage all post-secondary institutions, students and families to prepare for a full return to on-campus learning this September.”

Nicolaides said the safety of students, staff and faculty will be a top priority as schools transition back to in-person learning, after a year of largely online learning.

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Following the provincial government’s statement, the president of the University of Alberta said planning is well underway to welcome the university community back to campus this September.

“We will continue to prioritize your health and safety as we plan and make adjustments this year. Recognizing that not everyone may be able to fully return by September, please be assured virtual support and remote options will also continue to be available wherever possible,” Flanagan said.

“My thanks to all of you for demonstrating resilience, creativity, and above all, care for one another as we move forward together.”

The U of A Students’ Union said students “overwhelmingly” want to come back for in-person instruction.

“By fall, we hope most of the university community will be vaccinated,” students’ union president Joel Agarwal said, adding there are still some unanswered questions.

“What does safety look like in a fully in-person fall semester? Will there still be distancing requirements? If the government can give the post-secondary sector more clarity on questions like that as soon as possible, I’ve got high hopes for a safe, functional return to in-person instruction. Online instruction has been extremely difficult for students’ academic and mental health, so I am optimistic about a safe return to campus.”

Click to play video: 'Calgary post-secondary students excited about possible return to campus in September'
Calgary post-secondary students excited about possible return to campus in September

MacEwan University president Dr. Craig Monk said the school is encouraged to see the minister is focused on students returning to campus in the fall.

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“MacEwan has worked to prepare our community and campus for each eventuality during this pandemic,” Monk said.

“As we have throughout this pandemic, we will work within provincial health and safety guidelines to maximize every opportunity to bring our community back to campus for face-to-face activities.

“We are preparing to increase in-person learning by setting the capacity of classes and creating scheduling to ensure appropriate capacity and social distancing can be maintained in our spaces. Our plans always anticipated that some of our face-to-face classes may keep online modules, but they include the flexibility to respond to the changing circumstances around COVD-19.”

Monk said updates on the return-to-campus plan will be released as plans progress.

READ MORE: Alberta universities offer mostly online courses for fall 2020 term

The University of Calgary said it will work with Alberta Health to better understand the guidelines and hopes to make an announcement about its fall plans “shortly.”

“The University of Calgary is committed to providing a world-class educational experience within health guidelines necessary to keep our community safe,” spokesperson Dean Parthenis said.

“The scope and scale of in-person classes this fall will depend on vaccination timelines and public health regulations around physical distancing and other considerations.”

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The U of C’s students’ union said its top priority when students return to campus will be their health and safety.

“Online learning has presented challenges for students and has disconnected them from campus,” the student’s union said in a statement.

“A September return to in-person classes is positive but it must be done cautiously and safely. The SU will work closely with the province and university administration to make sure students are safe as they return to campus.”

Click to play video: 'How post-secondary students can stay on track financially during COVID-19'
How post-secondary students can stay on track financially during COVID-19

The president of the students’ union went on to say that “the mixed messaging from the province blaming the federal government for not providing enough vaccines to Alberta while simultaneously saying that all adults will be vaccinated by the end of June and planning for a return to class for September is concerning.”

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“This does not fill the SU with confidence,” Frank Finley said.

Finley also called out the province for making cuts to post-secondary institutions over the past few years.

“In his statement, the minister of Advanced Education makes no commitment to supporting institutions financially to cover increased costs such as deep cleaning,” Finley said.

“The minister’s statement is broad and lacks detail. The SU calls on the minister to put forward a solid plan on how to return to class safely without putting students at risk. Further, the minister should provide financial support to institutions to allow them to open safely and ensure proper cleaning protocols can be done adequately.”

Mount Royal University in Calgary said it is encouraged by the minister’s statement. The university will offer as many in-person courses and services as possible this fall, within public health guidelines.

“The transition back to campus must be well-organized and thoughtful. Remote working arrangements for most MRU employees will stay in place until at least June 30,” MRU president Tim Rahilly said.

“Mount Royal prides itself on having a close-knit community that values face-to-face interaction. I look forward to welcoming as many people as possible to campus this fall.”

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The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology said it is encouraged by the province’s progress on the vaccine rollout. The school will continue to work through its options when considering fall programming.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have been safely delivering in-person education in shops and labs where learning outcomes can only be met through physical learning, and virtually for all other aspects of our programming,” a statement from NAIT read.

“This fall, we will reintroduce in-person classroom learning as health guidelines allow, and in keeping with our strategic direction. As always, student success is at the centre of our decisions.

“The health and safety of the NAIT community will remain our top priorities. We will continue to be guided by provincial guidelines while balancing student, staff and operational needs.”

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology said it has had a working group engaged for months, preparing for various scenarios.

“We have been offering a form of online and some in-person programming since the early days of the pandemic, and we are looking forward to expanding our footprint which includes looking closely at a hybrid model of course delivery,” spokesperson Chris Gerritsen said.

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“The health and safety of SAIT’s students and employees is our priority, and we will continue to observe all precautions recommended by the government of Alberta and the chief medical officer of health as we make the successful return to campus.”

As of Friday morning, everyone in Phase 2A in Alberta’s vaccine rollout plan is eligible to book an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Phase 2A started on March 15 and includes Albertans born in 1947 to 1956, as well as First Nations, Métis and Inuit born 1971 or earlier.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health has said everyone in this phase should be able to receive their first dose of vaccine within three weeks.

Phase 2B is currently scheduled to roll out in April, and includes Albertans born from 2005 to 1957 who has one or more of the underlying health conditions outlined by the province earlier this week.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro has said  all Albertans 18 and over who want a vaccine will receive their first dose by the end of June, as long as the supply the province has been allotted keeps up.

As of March 17, Alberta had administered 418,663 doses of vaccine, with 92,378 Albertans fully immunized with two doses.

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