Facing uncertainty, N.B. universities could continue some online classes this fall
Many students hope to return to classrooms after a challenging academic year
New Brunswick universities are preparing for a fall semester with flexibility, after most courses moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The goal is to allow more students on campus if health guidelines permit. But with uncertainty around the vaccine rollout and what those guidelines might be by fall, some virtual learning may continue.
Students have faced a challenging year of adjusting to online studies, with more distractions, screen fatigue and fewer opportunities to meet their classmates. Some professors have also found the transition challenging.
Universities have also had to adapt residences and meal halls to physical distancing requirements, including housing self-isolating students.
The University of New Brunswick has chosen a combination of in-person courses and online classes for the fall term, while other universities have yet to make a decision.
UNB Student Union president Sean Mackenzie said he's hearing mixed reactions about online learning. Many want to return to in-person and hands-on learning, while others have appreciated the flexibility.
Mackenzie said people applying to universities right now also want to know what to expect.
"Overall students are understanding but obviously are disappointed and are waiting to see what September's hybrid model will look like," he said.
After a year of adapting to mostly virtual learning and a disappointing university experience, many students are ready to step away from their screens and into a classroom.
"A lot of students are getting to a point where it's very difficult for them," Mackenzie said.
Mount Allison University offered a mix of virtual and in-person classes, changing throughout the year in response to COVID-19 restrictions. While the Moncton region was under the red phase, courses were mostly delivered online.
Jonathan Ferguson, president of the Mount Allison Student Union, said students have been impressed with the effort by professors to adapt. He said many are hoping health measures will allow for more consistency in the fall.
"The constant changes are probably what adds to the fatigue," he said.
Mount Allison said the fall will likely look similar to this academic year: a mix of online and in-person formats.
Jeff Hennessy, the university's provost and vice president academic and research, said more in-person offerings are expected.
"We recognize that everyone's situation — for both students and faculty — is unique and that the course of the pandemic, the impact of new variants, and potential additional waves in our region are difficult to predict," he said in a statement. "Safety is paramount to all our decisions."
'Ready for any scenario'
The University of Moncton has offered online classes this year, with some in-person instruction mostly in the fine arts, sciences and nursing programs.
Course delivery has been different at each of the university's three campuses.
Elizabeth Dawes, the associate vice-president academic and faculty affairs, said a decision will be finalized by the end of May, with more in-person classes being offered.
Dawes said the fall semester plan will be flexible to consider the presence of new variants and changes to rollout of the vaccine.
"It's all based on the physical distancing, so once we know more about what Public Health will require, we can adapt our plan accordingly," she said. "We're ready for any scenario."
Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health, said it's difficult to say what health restrictions universities should expect.
"It really will be based on the percentage of the population that's vaccinated, and how well that protection is controlling outbreaks of COVID-19," she said at a news conference.
While most classes at the university are smaller sizes, a few of the largest courses typically have more than 100 students in one room.
Based on a fall survey, many students indicated a preference for a mix of online and in-person courses. Only about 18 per cent of respondents said they wanted entirely distanced learning.
"Students are eager to get back, but some students are also nervous for health reasons and there's different circumstances," Dawes said.
'Students want to get back in person'
St. Thomas University is currently making a decision about the fall semester.
It offered all of its courses online this academic year, with some opportunities for optional, in-person activities when allowed under health restrictions.
Spokesperson Jeffrey Carleton said the goal is to bring students back to campus for in-person learning in September. A final decision and announcement is expected to be made next month.
"There's absolutely no question that our students want to get back in person in class," he said.
St. Thomas is also examining flexible options in the event some students can't make it to campus or if some faculty members need to teach remotely.
"Exactly one year ago we were planning to close the university, and now we're planning to open it for September," Carleton said. "That in itself I think is very positive."
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