Nova Scotia

Universities, students prepare to deal with holiday breaks in the time of COVID-19

With no end in sight to the Atlantic bubble, many university students will forego trips home during the Thanksgiving long weekend and possibly other holidays.

St. Francis Xavier planning a slate of activities for Thanksgiving to keep students close

St. Francis Xavier University is one of the few schools in Nova Scotia that has most of its students back on campus this year. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

It will be a different kind of Thanksgiving this year for Jack Irvin.

In each of his first three years at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., the Almonte, Ont., native would return home with his siblings for the long weekend to see friends and family.

But that was before COVID-19 and the Atlantic bubble.

With anyone entering Nova Scotia from outside Atlantic Canada required to self-isolate for 14 days, Irvin and the other approximately 4,000 university students here from outside the Atlantic region will be sticking close to campus during the upcoming long weekend.

"I'm actually quite excited for Thanksgiving in Antigonish," said Irvin, a fourth-year human kinetics student.

"Me and my roommates, we're all going to get together and do kind of a Friendsgiving, because we all [come] from outside the bubble."

Lots of events planned

There will be plenty to do for students sticking around Antigonish.

Elizabeth Yeo, vice-president of student services at the university, said a variety of activities are being organized for the long weekend.

That includes movie marathons, sporting events on big screens and an outing to a local outdoor recreation complex for hiking, mountain biking and other activities. A Thanksgiving dinner is also part of the plan as well as non-traditional festivities.

"We have a number of things planned and going on and we're really asking people to stay around," said Yeo.

St. Francis Xavier is one of the few universities in the province that has the majority of its students back on campus. Yeo said there has been a "strong directive" to students against any unnecessary travel.

High level of community awareness

Community awareness is high for public health protocols and people within the university and broader community have been willing to contact the university or RCMP anytime there are concerns, said Yeo.

"We are finding that we have a broad range of people who, when they see things they're concerned about they share it."

A similar directive is in place at Acadia University in Wolfville, where many students also returned to campus for the school year.

University spokesperson Sherri Turner said in an email that students have been asked not to leave Atlantic Canada on weekends, during the Thanksgiving holiday or during study breaks.

"We are all bound to the province's travel restrictions and health authorities regarding movement and self-isolation requirements."

Thinking ahead to Christmas

While the immediate focus for students might be Thanksgiving, it won't be long before visions of the Christmas holiday break are dancing in their heads.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said talks are happening now with his office and universities about what might need to be in place, particularly for when students return from wherever they travel during the break.

But Strang cautioned that things could change between now and then. Nova Scotia had three known active COVID-19 cases as of Friday.

"Where we end up, a lot of it will depend [on] what the epidemiology is like locally and across the country in November and December," said Strang.

Yeo said officials at her university are working now on their plan and hope to have it in place by the end of the month, so people have plenty of notice before making plans for the holiday break.

Making arrangements for those who can't travel

The school will make arrangements for people who cannot return home for the break, or don't want to return home.

But St. F.X. officials are also looking at adjusting term dates so students who do travel outside Atlantic Canada are able to adhere to whatever public health guidelines are in place at the time of their return from the break, said Yeo.

"That will give them the ability to have a break at Christmas, because that's going to be important, and also be able to complete a self-isolation requirement if that is still required of students in January."

There are differences at Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point.

University spokesperson Rachelle Leblanc said not only are students being asked not to leave Atlantic Canada during the upcoming long weekend, but they're also being asked to stick around during the Christmas break.

The school is taking steps to accommodate students from outside Atlantic Canada during the holidays, said Leblanc.

"For this year we're making an exception: we're letting students stay in residence free of charge and some accommodations with regards to food service and other services will be made, also."

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With files from Amy Smith

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