'Where am I going to go?' McMaster students scramble as COVID-19 concerns shutters residence

On Tuesday, McMaster University requested all students living on campus to move out by Saturday as more coronavirus cases appear in Hamilton and across the country. The news has students and their families scrambling to comply.

The school told students Tuesday morning they must move out by 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 21

McMaster University is asking students living on campus to move out as soon as they can — and now their students are scrambling. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Sharang Sharma was hoping the on-campus housing at McMaster University would be his new home after flying in from Thailand to start school — now he worries he won't have a home at all.

"I feel anxious not being sure what's going to happen next," the 19-year-old told CBC News.

"I made plans to survive in residence so now that I know I might have to move out, where am I going to go?"

On Monday, McMaster University requested all students living on campus move out as more coronavirus cases appear in Hamilton and across the country. 

Emails from the school to students on Tuesday morning say they must move out by 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 21.

However the notice does highlight that students with "exceptional circumstances" who can't move out right away — such as international and out-of-province students — can apply for approval to stay in residence.

It also notes the school is "committed to providing financial consideration for your shortened stay in residence if you fully and properly check out by Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 4 p.m."

"We are here to help," reads the email.

Anyone living in the residence at Sault College has to show proof of vaccination before Sept. 20 or face eviction. (Sault College)

Sharma also wonders about food options on campus. The local on-campus restaurant, TwelvEighty Bar & Grill, closed down, leaving some students out of work and limiting food options for residents like Sharma.

"If the cafeterias are closing down [I'm wondering] if I need to get more stuff back into my residence to cook for the next few weeks," he said, noting the communication through the school's social media platforms has been inconsistent.

Sean Van Koughnett, the dean of students and associate vice president of students and learning, said there are 412 international students on campus and roughly 100 out-of-province students. He told CBC News closing down most of residence was the "most responsible decision."

"If we've got thousands of students compacted into a number of buildings, it didn't seem like a wise thing to do given the circumstances," he said, adding that many international students will still likely stay on campus for the remaining six weeks.

The school will also offer four different food options during the week and two during the weekend that will run as late as 10 p.m.

Kojo Damptey, executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion and a masters student at the school studying cultural studies, said the McMaster's approach doesn't do enough to address the needs of international students.

"In times like this, they are the ones that usually fall through the cracks," he told CBC News.

"I hope they come out with a plan that specifically addresses the unique challenges international students face … if you're an international student and in your undergrad, what does that mean, especially if you're staying on campus and they're asking students to go back home. If they don't have a relative here, where do they go? Where is home?"

He said the current plan also seems to lack details on accommodations, whether international students stay or go and also needs more clarity as to how the school will address any academic impacts to students.

Wynette Wong, a first-year commerce student, left residence on Friday as soon as the school cancelled all in-person classes and exams. She lives close by, but her dorm is still full of items and after struggling to focus on studying at home, Wong and her friends planned on returning to campus to study. 

She says her first year was supposed to be memorable — now it is for all the wrong reasons.

"I'm so disappointed. First year was getting really good, I was meeting so many people and it honestly was a lot of fun ... now they're telling us we have to pack up and go" she said.

"Of course they're looking out for our safety ... I just feel I'm not 100 per cent committed to my school work which is such a shame because it's the final push and it seems like I can't give it my absolute all."

For Wong, a high average is vital — without it, she will struggle to get an internship, which is a necessary component to her graduation.

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Allysia Chin, a fifth year chemical biology student, was planning on applying to medical school this year, but now she's not even sure if she'll be able to graduate.

"Am I going to get my exam marks in time, am I going to be able to graduate in time so I can apply to medical school, are they going to cancel the MCAT exam … it's scary, a lot of people don't really know what's going to happen," she said.

"Hopefully that includes being able to graduate on time … they're trying to make it seem as though everything is under control but is it really?"

Chin said she has to continue working on assignments despite not receiving any information from her professors and not being able to access all the necessary course materials.

An email from McMaster obtained by CBC News promises students in the faculty of science that "by no later than March 18th, you will receive a communication from your 2020 Winter Term instructors that will clearly explain changes to their respective course outline, as a result of COVID-19."

Van Koughnett added that the school will ensure all students graduate.

The school has taken drastic measures, cancelling all in-person classes and exams, as coronavirus cases continue to pop up in Hamilton and across Canada.

Before the recent moves from McMaster, students on campus didn't appear to be too worried about COVID-19. 

Audrey Wu, a first year student in the arts and science program, said in late January, students posted a fake poster on their door in residence about having the virus, which the school discredited in a statement, according to The Silhouette, the school's newspaper.

Wong added students have made jokes and memes about the virus online.

David Farrar, the school president, reassured students via a statement on Monday the school will support students.

"I encourage everyone to focus on what we can do rather than on what we cannot do ... people are understandably nervous and worried as our lives are being impacted in unsettling ways," he said.

"This is not the time to worry about having perfect answers."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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