McMaster University plans for virtual student residences amid 'unprecedented' challenge
Courses will likely be online as pandemic keeps campus closed, but school is planning for all scenarios
McMaster University is planning for a fall term of "unprecedented" change, as a new school year looms amid the vast uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's expecting fewer international students, more deferred acceptance offers and online teaching for the thousands who are attending in the fall as it juggles plans for multiple scenarios.
What September will look like will begin to become clear June 1, the date by which students must accept or decline their offers.
But for the students it knows are enrolled, the university they experienced last year will be transformed.
Because of COVID-19, they likely won't sit in a lecture hall, join fraternities, play sports or participate in clubs like they used to. Even if they want to visit campus, right now, most buildings are locked up.
The social side of university, which can be the difference between success and failure for many, has changed; so, McMaster University is trying to engineer its own social network through a new program called Archway.
It will act as a virtual alternative to residence life. Each first-year student (about 6,000 students in a normal year) will be put in a group with roughly 30 other students using the same matching system used to group those living in residence.
Then, each first-year student is assigned an upper-year student who acts as a mentor and a faculty member who acts as a guide. The meetings will likely take place through video chat.
"You're not just one in a mass of people," Sean Van Koughnett, McMaster's dean of students and associate vice president of students and learning, told CBC News.
"Students can get lost if they're not reached out to proactively ... in this structure what we're trying to put forward is a mentor reaching out, in close contact."
Still many unknowns
Van Koughnett admitted there are still many unknowns amid the pandemic.
"This is the first time in history this has happened to the university sector," Sean Van Koughnett, McMaster's dean of students and associate vice president of students and learning, told CBC News.
"The complexity and number of people involved, the international relations and international student population and all these things combined, when you use the word 'unprecedented,' that's true when it comes to this situation."
The biggest question is if the school will be able to use its campus. For now, that will not likely be the case, but as the school tries to prepare for any possibility, it has to keep enrolment limits in courses just in case lecture halls do open up.
But Van Koughnett also hopes they will be able to use on-campus housing.
"We have 70 students remaining (on campus) so we've proven even if campus is essentially closed, we can house students," he said.
"I'm imagining that unless the virus miraculously disappears over the summer, which no one is predicting, if we're able to have students in residence in the fall, it will look certainly different than it would in a normal year with appropriate health and safety measures put in place."
Scholarships won't be affected
While the full extent of how COVID-19 has affected finances is also still unknown, Van Koughnett said the school won't be put in a dire situation.
Even if they have less money than normal, scholarships won't be rescinded or affected. And students who are applying also will not have offers rescinded if their grades dropped late in the year.
"The approach is to be accommodating," he said.