Nfld. & Labrador

Hundreds of MUN students call for labs to move online amid COVID-19 wave

Students have started a petition calling for the institution to move lab work online.

'I don't entirely feel that they're safe,' says biology student Kira Whittaker

More than 670 Memorial University students have signed a petition to move in-person labs online during the current wave of COVID-19. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Hundreds of Memorial University students have signed a petition asking the school to move in-person labs online, as the current wave of COVID-19 pushes on in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The university returned to mostly online learning for January as the Omicron wave spread across the province, but did allow a few key exceptions to that policy — including labs for courses in the faculty of science that are set to take place in person for the winter semester.

"I'm concerned about in-person labs. I don't entirely feel that they're safe," biology student Kira Whittaker told CBC News on Wednesday.

While those labs aren't scheduled to start until next week, students like Whittaker — who co-organized the petition, which had 670 signatures as of Thursday morning — are still worried.

"Myself and other students were emailing MUN faculty looking for answers about the upcoming labs in person, and no one really seemed to be getting any answers," Whittaker said. "So we decided to organize and address the faculty as one voice."

A walkway near a pond with a sign that reads Memorial University.
Kira Whittaker says she and other students are concerned for their safety. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Whittaker said MUN's faculty told students there's a point where the campus community is going to have to live with COVID-19, and there are prevention measures in pace to prevent an outbreak.

But she said some students disagree. 

"There doesn't seem to be a plan for handling an outbreak should it occur, and there's no plan … for academic protection for students required to self-isolate as a result of exposure to COVID-19," Whittaker said. 

In-person labs going ahead

Florentine Strzelczyk, MUN's academic vice-president academic, said the university's plan is to move ahead with in-person labs where possible and physical distancing allows.

Students and staff will be provided masks to wear in campus buildings.

"We feel confident that we can give hands-on experiences to students in those labs," she said.

"Many of the techniques and pieces you learn in a lab can't just be replicated online. Biochemistry, for example — it just cannot be efficiently completed online."

Strzelczyk said there are also accreditation requirements, meaning there are a certain number of hours of hands-on experience required for students to graduate certain programs.

Listen to the full interview with Kira Whittaker:

Strzelczyk said other programs that cannot maintain physical distancing may look at other options for their labs, with the possibility of pushing the lab experience to later in the program.

"It's our job to do everything we can to get students ready for the world of work and make sure they graduate on time," Strzelczyk said.

"I think Memorial is very much in line with other universities where those lab experiences will take place in person."

Students who miss time because of contracting COVID-19 being in isolation because of contact with a positive case will work with their instructors and program directors to figure out a plan, Strzelczyk said

Strzelczyk said there are "broad supports" in place through the student life unit and student health and wellness unit for students who fall ill.

"It's a duty to accommodate that we always follow when a student cannot make it to class and is ill," she said.

For those students who are immunocompromised and are worried about their education, Strzelczyk said there's a process to accommodate students with medical issues. 

"We work with students to find alternative [courses], or switch courses around," she said.

"We work with individual students because, to be honest, every single student's schedule and trajectory is a little bit different and they get that personalized help." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show