How Canada’s Universities & Colleges Are Handling The Fall 2021 Semester

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In the winter of 2019, my cousin, Maya Singh was excited. She was set to graduate from her GTA-based high school the coming spring and go off to Fleming College that September, starting her program in developmental services, and making new friends while eating mediocre dorm food. Then, COVID hit. Rather than pay tuition and residence fees just to sit at a computer for another 12 months, she decided to postpone college and re-apply for the 2021 school year. “It was very upsetting because in first year you get to have new experiences and create new friendships; it’s a different environment from what you’re used to,” says Singh, now 18. “When COVID hit, it stopped everything.”
Now, the fall 2021 semester is approaching, ushering in another back-to-school in the time of COVID. Last year saw the majority of post-secondary institutions move their classes entirely online, which, for students looking to experience the Hollywood version of a university experience, meant no in-person classes and tutorials and — maybe even more importantly for some — no parties or extracurriculars
This year, with more than 56% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, and 79% partially vaccinated, the world looks different, and hopefully a little closer to the pre-pandemic schooling we knew and (sometimes) loved. But there are still a lot of changes forthcoming, and the kind of steps post-secondary institutions are taking vary. As of early July, many schools across the country are taking a cautiously optimistic approach to the beginning of the year: Most universities and colleges are offering a mixture of online and in-person learning (the latter primarily for students who have on-site labs), with more in-person classes to be phased in as vaccination progresses, in compliance with public health guidelines.
For example, at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON, the school has outlined three possible scenarios for classes come September. It's predicting course delivery will include a “significant return to on-campus instruction, complemented with online and hybrid elements.” At Centennial College in Toronto and Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, the majority of classes will remain online. The former requires that any students who do physically come on campus follow campus re-entry guidelines and protocols, which include completing and presenting a COVID-19 pre-screening assessment before every visit to the campus. International students are able to attend classes virtually from outside of Canada until December 31. In B.C., post-secondary schools have been advised that they’ll be able to return entirely to in-person classes and extracurriculars come September. 
Shivani Persad has had a taste of what this hybrid learning can look like. Enrolled in broadcast journalism at Seneca College since May, Persad has attended the majority of her classes virtually. While her class of four people (knocked down from the usual 20 because of COVID) can easily social distance, Persad’s first in-person class didn’t happen until early July — and there were some hiccups. “Yesterday was our TV newscast class, and you’re in a mask the whole time,” she tells Refinery29. That may not sound like a big issue off the bat, but for Persad and her classmates, who want to use on-camera snippets for reels to get hired after graduating, seeing the bottom of their face is kind of important. “At some point we’ll have to do it without our masks, or else we won’t be able to use them in our demo reels.” 
In addition to COVID restrictions, teachers and students must also contend with logistical hurdles: Most on-campus equipment hasn’t been used in over eight months. “My instructor was running back and forth between the tech room and our room because the green screen wasn't working, or they weren't able to record, or the sound [wasn’t working].” According to Persad, her instructor hopes to get the class on-campus and on-camera without masks before the program ends this summer (safely, of course). “I would argue that college programs especially where you have to be in a lab or doing more hands-on are going to be the ones that are the most affected,” Persad says.
That's another q: How safe is it to go back? “It's a lot safer this coming September than it was last September,” says Colin Furness, an assistant professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto, about the reintroduction of in-person classes. A year ago, Furness says major concerns centred around a looming second wave and the chain of transmission (ie: young, healthy university and college students who could pass along COVID to older and more at-risk family members). This year, his concern isn’t so much about real and present danger as it is uncertainty regarding potential unknowns. “That gets down to how COVID behaves and vaccination rates,” he says. 
With COVID continuously mutating and changing (by now, you’ve likely heard all about the Delta variant), questions remain about how different variants will behave in different climates and populations. Will they infect children — who aren’t currently eligible for vaccinations — more easily? Will they cause more severe illness? What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity? This info will only come with time.
In the meantime, we still need to be vigilant. Dr. Christos Karatzios, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at McGill University Health Centre, points to mass hospitalizations and deaths in India as an example of the variants’ effect. "It's a numbers game. A lot more people are going to go to hospital. A lot more people will end up getting sick." This is most likely to happen among people who are only partially or unvaccinated (FYI, currently 90% of Canada’s COVID-19 cases are among unvaccinated people). "We need two doses in order to get higher antibody levels to prevent the virus from attaching to our bodies and making us ill. One dose is not going to cut it." 
What’s more, worrying reports out of the U.S increasingly point to the danger of breakthrough infections — when fully vaccinated people become infected and very sick. The CDC has already reversed its indoor mask policy to suggest that vaccinated people continue to wear face-coverings in high-risk areas. It’s early stages yet, but new learnings will very likely continue to shape policies in Canada in the coming weeks and months ahead of the school year. 
Furness believes that a potentially looming fourth wave — which would disproportionately affect unvaccinated people — could end up resulting in renewed enthusiasm for vaccination. “A lot of unvaccinated people are going to be rushing to get vaccinated in the fall once they've seen the statistics,” he says, which could mean more vaccinated people in school settings come the winter semester. 
There's also a debate about mandatory vaccines. Despite some schools across the U.S. mandating that students be fully vaccinated before being allowed on campus, only a handful of Canadian campuses initially followed suit, with the University of Toronto, Western University, Durham College, York University, Ryerson University, and Fanshawe College requiring that students living in residence be vaccinated (receiving at least one dose two weeks before returning to campus). While initially Seneca College was one of the sole universities in the country that announced they'd require all students and staff be vaccinated in order to enter campus for in-person classes, in the lead up to the Fall semester, additional schools like Western University and the University of Toronto announced they were also making vaccination mandatory for any students and staff entering campus. Though many universities, like the University of Alberta, are actively encouraging students and faculty who are eligible for vaccines to do so before returning to campus, they have stopped short of making it mandatory or requiring students and staff to disclose their vaccination status. This is for a myriad of reasons, including — per a University of British Columbia spokesperson — “equity, privacy [and] human rights,” considerations. 
As experts have pointed out, mandatory vaccination requirements bring up questions of equity accessibility, although it should be noted that schools — especially at the elementary level — have a history of requiring mandatory immunization against polio, measles, mumps, and chickenpox, to name a few. Furness suggests allowing unvaccinated students to continue learning online, while Karatzios points to the United States’ method of incentivizing citizens to get vaccinated as a potential model Canada could follow. "[Could] students get some form of discount on their tuition fees, or a monetary voucher for books and school supplies?” (Again, there are ethical complications to this.)
Remote learning does have its perks, however. Keeping courses online — or accessible online for those who want to remain remote — means that students who may not be able to physically travel for school due to health, financial, or accessibility reasons can still take part in learning.
For Singh, heading into her first year — albeit a little later than planned — is still exciting, but also stressful, and not just for the regular old reasons like assignment deadlines. She’s decided to stick closer to home, attending Durham College so she can live with her parents, and keep the job she worked over the last year. “I’m really stressed about it,” she says of starting school online, “because being at home you have no motivation to do school.” It doesn’t help that her bed is mere steps away from her desk. Ultimately Singh says she does feel like she made the right decision delaying her two-year program. But she does feel some regret. “I feel like I'm missing out on the whole college experience,” she says. “A year is going by where I haven’t made any new friends, I haven't done any school activities.” 

How universities and colleges across Canada are handling COVID-19 now

Here’s how universities and colleges across Canada are handling the second COVID-19 fall semester, including which schools will open, which will stay virtual, and which you’ll need a vaccine to get in the doors.


British Columbia






Newfoundland and Labrador

Prince Edward Island

Nova Scotia

New Brunswick

Yukon, Northwest Territories & Nunavut

This story has been updated with additional reporting

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