Collapse of Atlantic bubble means a change in exams for some university students
Some students rushed home before provinces brought back 14-day isolation rule
The collapse of the Atlantic bubble has left some Nova Scotia university students in a tough spot ahead of their end-of-semester exams and holiday break.
Throughout the summer, residents of Atlantic Canada were able to travel freely throughout the four provinces as the number of COVID-19 cases remained low.
But as that number began to rise in November, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador withdrew from the bubble, with New Brunswick following suit shortly after. Those provinces now require people from all other provinces to self-isolate for 14 days upon entry.
In Nova Scotia, people from P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick are still allowed to enter the province without self-isolating, but it is recommended that people avoid non-essential travel.
For students from the other Atlantic provinces attending St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., the changes — announced shortly before their exam period and Christmas break — came as a surprise.
Some rushed to get to their home provinces before the changes took effect, while others weren't able to make it back in time and are now in isolation.
School caught 'off guard'
"There's no doubt that the self-isolation protocols of the province has caught us and our students off guard and made students very anxious," Kevin Wamsley, academic vice-president and provost at St. FX, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.
"Any time of the year getting close to final examinations, students are already anxious, and so the first thing we are concerned about is our students, and of course their health and safety."
Wamsley said the school has about 179 students from P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador, and 344 from New Brunswick. Some of them have chosen to stay in Nova Scotia for the break, but he believes the majority of them are going home.
If students from other Atlantic provinces leave Nova Scotia any time after Dec. 10, they would have to be in self-isolation on Christmas. However, the school's exam period goes until Dec. 15.
No online exams
Some other universities are doing their exams online, but Wamsley said St. FX didn't want to go that route since the school was able to have most of its classes in person and most students were expecting in-person exams.
"To turn this around and to put everything online with a few days notice was really not an acceptable solution for our professors," he said.
To get around this, Wamsley said the school has put together a team to work with students in the Atlantic provinces on an individual basis to arrange to have them write their exams at home with a proctor.
Wamsley said professors will provide an electronic copy of their exam to the team working on this, and those exams will be delivered to the students and sent back to the school by the proctors.
The goal, he said, is to "make sure that the students who have departed have a right to the same final exams that our students here have, and that there's academic integrity through the process with a proctor at hand."
Wamsley said during in-person exams, all students will be wearing masks and will be seated two metres apart.
'Not an ideal situation'
Sarah Elliott, the student union president at St. FX, said the big challenge will be providing individual accommodations for everybody.
"We're just making sure that it's really easy for students to find their proctors," she told Mainstreet. "It's not an ideal situation, but I think that we'll be able to do it OK."
She said students would benefit from more communication from the school and knowing exactly what's expected of them.
"The Atlantic bubble popping was just kind of madness for everybody, and now it's time to kind of settle and get everybody on the same page," she said.
Elliott noted the issue also extends to international students, who may have a similar isolation period while returning to their home countries.
She said that so far, the year has been stressful for her and other students, though she's grateful to be able to do most of her classes in person.
"I know I don't learn well online. I'm in one online class and it's very hard for me, while my in-person classes, it's a lot easier to focus, and I think that's what most people are feeling like," Elliott said.
"However, I think that there is just an accumulation of stress to the point where the exam period hits and a lot of students, they're just tired. They're exhausted."
Return to class
Wamsley said St. FX already has a plan in place for when students return at the end of the holiday break, which was extended to accommodate for self-isolation periods.
Students from outside Atlantic Canada are expected to return between Jan. 4 and Jan. 5 to begin their 14-day self-isolation. The first week of class, beginning Jan. 13, will be online so those students are still able to study while in isolation.
Meanwhile, students from P.E.I., Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick can return to school on Jan. 19, so the two groups of returning students can avoid mixing.
In-person classes are expected to resume on Jan. 20.
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With files from Mainstreet Halifax