If fast-approaching final exams weren’t stressful enough, students at Western University are now grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases among students, staff and the rest of the London, Ont., community.
Three student residence outbreaks remain active at Elgin Hall, Ontario Hall and Saugeen-Maitland Hall, with the latest outbreak, at Elgin, declared on Tuesday. That same day, an outbreak at Essex Hall that was declared on March 2 was marked as resolved.
An active community outbreak that’s spawned at least 10 cases has been linked to a gathering or gatherings involving business students.
Western officials are also dealing with an unspecified number of cases involving staff from the university’s Facilities Management division, according to an internal memo obtained by Global News.
All this comes as the London-Middlesex region sees a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, which prompted the MLHU to move into the red-control level of Ontario’s COVID-19 response framework on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Western introduced additional safety measures at the school including a mandate that everyone on campus wear a three-layer, non-medical mask when indoors and in the presence of others.
Students in residences are now required to wear face coverings at all times outside their bedroom and all common areas inside the residences have been closed.
“We’ve dealt with transmission in residence settings before and we’ve actually seen it come under control with quarantine measures where appropriate, as well as these enhanced measures,” said Dr. Alex Summers, the MLHU’s associate medical officer of health.
“The measures are not easy, but in a lot of ways we know them very well now.”
Maanas Vankalapati is in his first year at Western and lives in a residence on-campus.
While he feels safe at the university and believes Western is doing what it can with the added safety measures, Vankalapati says there are some factors that are out of the university’s control.
“Western cannot force you to do whatever, but they can only make regulations and if you don’t follow it, that’s on you,” Vankalapati said.
The student says he wishes he was able to receive the traditional first-year experience of attending lectures, meeting new friends and doing other things that would’ve been normal outside of pandemic times.
“I’m not too upset about Western itself not letting us go to in-person and stuff, more than I am just upset that COVID, in general, has existed.”
First-year student Sydney Rushton also feels that Western is doing what it can with the added safety measures, but told Global News that it’s “quite scary” living in residence.
“People just don’t stay on their floors, they have other connections on different floors and if one person gets it, then obviously the whole floor is at risk,” Rushton said.
“(Western has) done a lot… but that doesn’t obviously stop people from going where they want to go.”
Despite her concerns, Rushton says she doesn’t regret choosing to live in residence thanks to the friends she met and the experiences she has had.
The student says her focus is on final exams, which take place in April, but adds that the threat of COVID-19 still lingers in the back of her mind.
“Being off-campus, I think, for sure is safer,” said Jack Liang, a student in his first year at Western.
“There’s been so many outbreaks and it’s been concentrated in the residences… even with lower capacity, I think it’s still a danger.”
A nursing student with most of his exams set to take place online, Liang said he wouldn’t be heavily affected if even more safety measures were implemented by Western, such as locking down more facilities.
As for the current safety measures, Liang feels Western is doing a good job, but says a lot of it is up to students.
“I know a lot of people are still going out, partying and visiting different people, different households and stuff,” Liang said. “Ultimately, I think it’s dependent on those students to make the right choices.”
Third-year student Carter Stevens is entering his second final exam cycle amid the pandemic, and while he feels safe from a health standpoint, Stevens worries about his grades taking a hit.
“I know last year, I imagine all the years before this, during exams season they leave the libraries open 24 hours a day, seven days a week… but now there’s just really nothing like it at all,” Stevens said.
As of Wednesday, only Taylor Library remains open, all other libraries at Western, including Weldon, remain closed for onsite studying or research.
“I know myself — and I can’t imagine how many other people — find it so hard to work from home, especially being there all day to do the actual classes,” Stevens said.
Stevens describes the experience from his university years without a pandemic and with a pandemic as “night and day,” with the latter leading to a loss in companionship among classmates.
“I really feel for people who have asynchronous classes… one of my roommates just has zero classes that he does at the same time with other people and you just have no friends, you have a full year of university by yourself,” Stevens said.
“The school said they plan to open up things next year which is hopeful, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to have to end fourth-year in this environment.”