Hamilton

Following the return to campus, some McMaster students push for a hybrid option

Just days after the full return to campus, a student-led petition calling for McMaster University to provide online learning options has amassed almost 1,000 signatures from students, faculty and staff.

'We're being bad neighbours,' says one professor

Emunah Woolf (Emunah Woolf)

Just days after the full return to campus, a student-led petition calling for McMaster University to provide online learning options has amassed nearly 1,000 signatures from students, faculty and staff.

The petition launched in late December outlines demands for a safe return to campus, saying "access to courses through online learning tools must continue to be an option available to all students beyond Feb. 7."

McMaster was one of many Ontario post-secondary schools that delayed a planned return to campus due to the spread of the Omicron variant.  A full return began on Monday. 

Emunah Woolf is a McMaster student and director of Maccess, an organization for students with disabilities. Woolf said they would like to see an option for students to continue with remote learning.

"The main ask that we've [had] is around hybrid learning, so options for folks to go in person, as well as options to attend online so folks can tune in from a safe or distant location and also to not be in a disadvantage to in-person classmates."

Woolf was a panellist during a Monday event called #PushBackOnBackToMac, where students and faculty voiced their concerns regarding the back-to-campus plan.

The social work department where Woolf studies has continued its courses online after students advocated for the option. But Woolf said they decided to speak up and be part of the panel after hearing concerns from the wider McMaster community. 

"There's a lot of fear and anxiety, either for their own health, health of family members or community members, just a general sense of feeling dismissed or unheard by the university, or that our lives and concerns don't matter." 

More than 100 people attended the event, where Woolf wanted the main takeaway to be that "disabled students, staff and community members aren't expendable."

"We deserve to be included and safe on campus as well as [be] brought into these conversations where we have the knowledge of what we need."

'We're being bad neighbours,' says McMaster professor

McMaster professor Ameil Joseph was also a panellist at the Monday event. He said in his view, current safety measures on campus go against what public officials have said.

"It is very unique that Hamilton is being described as the epicentre of the pandemic and that our hospital CEOs are telling us that they are overcapacity, and we're being bad neighbours by not responding to that need."

McMaster requires students to have two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and be masked when indoors, but according to Joseph, that's not enough. 

"It's been widely discussed that initial vaccine efficacy of 95 per cent is no longer the case with Omicron, and a small portion of the population has received the boosters. There are health experts who recently in the British Medical Journal advocated for the vaccine-plus strategy, which is having N95 masks or similar, physical distancing testing, contact tracing, isolation measures, ways that we can manage through data collection and protective measures." 

Numbers also show higher rates of infections among Black, Indigenous and people of colour are higher, Joseph said. So those groups deserve special consideration when it comes to protection, he said. 

"You would expect an institution of higher learning would rely on the kind of best evidence out there to make the best types of protection possible by following the best guidance out there, and that's not what was happening," he said. 

Adjusting 'whenever possible'

Last month, McMaster responded to the concerns, saying the university would make adjustments "wherever possible so that students can reduce their time on campus during the winter term."

Sean Van Koughnett, vice-president of students and learning, said no decision will "make everyone happy," but the university is trying to meet student needs. 

"We've done our best to consult experts to take some guidance from them to balance all these needs," he told CBC News this week. "And this is where we've landed. So we're going to have people who are grateful and happy, and we're going to have some people who don't feel that way."

As for increasing safety measures on campus, Van Koughnet said McMaster will continue to follow public health recommendations.

"My understanding is unless you're in a clinical setting where you're dealing with patients, for instance, certain narrow circumstances that the level three surgical masks are adequate, and that's the guidance we received from public health," he said. 

Following health guidelines

Van Koughnet said McMaster would follow government guidelines when it comes to requiring a booster shot to attend in-person classes. 

Other post-secondary schools have taken a similar route. Brock University did a similarly staggered return in recent weeks. After York University also announced a plan to return, students there created a petition to have online options. By Feb. 9, the petition had more than 15,000 signatures. 

Mohawk College, meanwhile, announced last month it would continue the winter term completely online. 

Some large McMaster lecture halls on campus already have recording capabilities for students who want to follow along virtually, and Van Koughnet said the school will try to make more classes available this way.

"In an ideal world, every course would be taught in two ways," he said.

"We do want to move more in that direction so that there's more of that type of offering. At this point, though, it's not tenable to ask an instructor to teach a course twice."

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