Western University students hoping for the best after large gatherings prompt warning

Western University administration emphasizes that the use of the lanyards associated with the new identification system is entirely voluntary. Geoff Robins / The Canadian Press

Fear of a return to online learning looms large for some students at Western University in London, Ont., after a slew of weekend parties prompted a stern warning from the school.

“We’ve seen a disturbing trend over the last few days that puts our entire year in jeopardy,” said Western president Alan Shepard and University Students’ Council president Zamir Fakirani in a joint letter issued on Tuesday.

Safety measures surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online and led to the cancellation of most on-campus activities in 2020-2021 sessions.

Read more: Western University, USC warn large gatherings put school year in jeopardy

The letter goes on to describe “several large gatherings near campus – along with some aggressive behaviour that put the safety of others at risk,” adding that if the activity continues, the in-person aspects of campus life planned for this year, such as in-person classes, extracurriculars and athletics, may be lost.

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While the letter does not provide further descriptions for where the gatherings occurred nor how large they were, it does inform students that “everyone must continue following provincial guidelines.”

Ontario is currently in Step 3 of its reopening plan, which limits indoor gatherings to no more than 25 people. Outdoors gatherings are capped at 100 people. Other long-standing restrictions, such as mask-wearing in indoor public spaces and maintaining at least two metres of physical distancing, remain in place as well.

Western also requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination for anyone on campus. Only those with a medical or Human Rights Code exemption can go unvaccinated, however, they will be subject to frequent testing for the virus.

Read more: Ontario universities admonish students for massive parties as schools reopen

Jennifer Miller lives nearby where some of the parties took place, but assumed she was only hearing noise from small get-togethers.

“I didn’t know about the Broughdale parties that were going on and the street party — that was something I saw on social media and I was like really? Do we need to do that?” said Miller, who is in her fourth year at Western.

“I am hoping that people can get it out of their system and then once school starts things can go back to normal, so that we can stay having in-person classes.”

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Her feelings were echoed by Jordan Henderson, who is also hoping her fourth year will finish with an in-person graduation.

“We’re so close, we really are, so if we can just kind of hold out and just make good decisions for a few weeks, I think we can stay in a good spot,” Henderson added.

Now in their fourth year, Jordan Henderson (left) and Jennifer Miller hope they can finish strong with an in-person Western University experience. Andrew Graham / Global News

While he understands how the COVID-19 pandemic could fuel a desire to party, second-year student John Oh says he appreciates Western’s response to the large gatherings.

“I live on the street right? So, I just see a lot of people flooding the streets and stuff … you never know where this person has gone or come from,” Oh said.

This year will mark Oh’s first in-person experience at Western, after he was forced to spend all of last year learning remotely, which has him yearning to make up for lost time.

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Read more: Mixed emotions in London, Ont., as students return to school

He says this creates a tough balancing act, as he still recognizes the need to make sacrifices in order to follow health guidelines related to COVID-19.

“I just hope that students continue to be safe and practice protocols and what not, but at the same time they’re still able to have fun, whatever way that may be,” Oh said.

“I think it’s time for us to be creative and just be open to the different possibilities.”

John Oh (right) is joined by fellow second year student Fayez Elmadhoon, both of whom are hoping classes will stay in-person this year. Andrew Graham / Global News

Also looking to make up for time spent online is Nikolas Grue, a second-year student who only experienced his first in-person university class on Wednesday.

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“I’m liking it so far and, fingers crossed, I’m hoping it’s going to stay like this because I definitely don’t want to go back online,” Grue said.

In September 2020, gatherings and other events led to dozens of COVID-19 cases among Western students, but this was followed by a drop in party activity within student neighbourhoods, resulting in a much tamer-than-usual “fake homecoming” (FOCO) celebration later that month.

Read more: COVID-19: Western University students hopeful for ‘normal year’ as they move back to residence

Grue hopes history will repeat itself, but his friend and fellow second-year student Artai Shoghli says he’s less optimistic.

“It’s been a year and a half and people haven’t seemed to realize, so I think soon enough it’s going to end up going back online,” Shoghli said.

“I hope not, but I don’t see what’s going to change … We can do our part, but people who don’t want to accept it, we can’t change their mind.”

Having only experienced their first in-person university class on Wednesday, second-year students Artai Shoghli (left) and Nikolas Grue are fearful of a return to online learning. Andrew Graham / Global News

Associate medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) Dr. Alex Summers says while the Delta variant poses a concern for COVID-19 cases linked to behaviour noted in the letter from Western, it helps to have a rising rate in vaccinations among post-secondary students, along with vaccine mandates at universities.

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“My hope for students right now is that you’re fully vaccinated and that you’re remembering that we’re still not out of the woods yet,” Summers said.

“In our region, nearly 74 per cent of those (aged) 18-24 have had at least one dose, 63.4 per cent have had two doses, so it’s certainly high, but it needs to get higher.”

Click to play video: 'Uvic campus party raises questions about COVID-19 safety'
Uvic campus party raises questions about COVID-19 safety

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