Manitoba universities, colleges not ready to return to in-person learning, despite vaccine rollout

Seven universities and colleges in Manitoba say they will not be returning to full, in-person classes for the fall even if most of the student population gets vaccinated with two doses of COVID-19 vaccine by September, according to a CBC News survey. 

“The difficulty is we have to tell our students now what the fall term looks like because they’re making decisions,” said Dan Smith, vice president of academic and research at the University College of the North. 

“Registration starts in a couple of weeks, but when students start to register, we have to be very clear with them: where, what, how they make their plans, where they’re going to be,” Smith said. 

Five universities and two colleges in Manitoba say they will be operating under a blended plan with remote and in-class learning when September arrives.

‘We have to tell our students now what the fall term looks like because they’re making decisions,’ says Dan Smith, University College of the North’s vice-president of academic and research. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

UCN and the University of Winnipeg say 42 per cent of its courses will be offered face-to-face, and priority will be given to courses that require hands-on instruction or are best delivered in person.

Université de Saint-Boniface is planning for 35 per cent of its students to be back on campus next term.

“It’s a very complex ecosystem to bring people back to our campus. It’s a lot more difficult than closing the campus,” said Sophie Bouffard, president of Université de Saint-Boniface. 

Elsewhere, the University of Manitoba is allowing classes of 20 students or fewer, and labs of 25 students or fewer to return in person. Brandon University also says it’s only allowing classes of 25 or less, to be face-to-face. 

Red River College and Assiniboine Community College did not specify how many of their fall classes will be taught in person. 

Social distancing remains a challenge 

On Wednesday, Manitoba reached a milestone in its vaccination roll out as 70 per cent of people aged 12 and older have received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The province has set a goal of having at least 25 per cent of Manitobans vaccinated with two doses by July 1.

Yet despite a promising vaccination rollout, universities say it’s too risky to plan for a near-normal scenario in September. 

Smith says public health officials have advised that vaccine uptake could be lower closer to fall, or a new variant of the virus could emerge in which vaccines can’t manage — both are worst-case scenarios that schools must plan for.

The University of Winnipeg says 42 per cent of its courses will be offered face-to-face. (Terry Stapleton/CBC)

David Docherty, Brandon University’s president and vice chancellor, says social distancing could still be required even if most Manitobans are vaccinated, posing challenges for universities to reintegrate everyone.

“Even though we have small classes and we pride ourselves on that, some of our first year classes are 100 or more. We couldn’t comfortably do that social distancing,” he said.

Bouffard agrees with Docherty. She says Université de Saint-Boniface can only fit a third of its students if social distancing is required on campus. 

Plans bring mixed student reaction  

Raymond Lyttle, fourth-year student studying education and developmental studies at the University of Winnipeg, says he believes September is too soon to resume in-person classes. 

Lyttle’s partner has a connective tissue disorder and his grandfather has leukemia, so catching COVID-19 is not a risk he’s willing to take, he said. 

“My initial response just from deep in my gut was, ‘Oh no, this is going to go poorly,'” he said. 

“I’m worried that many young people, which is the bulk of the university population, are likely to be a little bit flippant with COVID restrictions — we’ve seen that trend,” Lyttle said.

Raymond Lyttle, a fourth-year student at the University of Winnipeg, says he believes September is too soon to resume in-person classes. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Lyttle says he will not be registering for in-person classes come September, but he’s not keen about online classes, either. 

“I’ve applied for some full-time positions and if I can get work where I can work remotely, I might take a term off and wait for things to settle down before I return, especially since online learning sucks,” he said. 

Tekla Cunningham, first-year masters student studying geological sciences at the University of Manitoba, says she’s excited to return to school. 

“I have really, really missed being in person for classes. I’m a little nervous just because I haven’t been around a lot of people for a very long time so it’s a big adjustment,” she said.

Tekla Cunningham, a masters student at the University of Manitoba, says she’s excited to return to school. (Peggy Lam)

Cunningham says she supports blended learning for fall, and is happy her graduate classes will have no more than ten students. 

“On a normal day on campus, there’s thousands of people walking around … so I don’t think I’d feel comfortable if we’re back to a hundred per cent, even with vaccines [and] people still wearing masks,” Cunningham said.

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