Coronavirus worries keeping some newcomer language students away from Holland College

Holland College says attendance in its newcomer language programs has taken a major dip in the past few weeks, because students are worried about the coronavirus outbreak. 

No confirmed cases of virus on P.E.I., public health officials say risk remains low

Holland College says it's relaxed its policy of removing students from its newcomer language programs after they've missed two straight weeks of classes. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Holland College says attendance in its newcomer language programs has taken a major dip in the past few weeks, because students are worried about the coronavirus outbreak. 

According to the college, the absentee rate in the programs is typically five per cent. Since the third week of January, it's grown to 13 per cent. Some students haven't been in class for weeks. 

"Our students communicate with teachers. They tell us why they're missing time, and they've indicated [coronavirus] is the reason," said Allison Doughart, program manager of community education at Holland College.

"Whether it's because they're scared they may be infected by students that have travelled home from China, whether they have family members that have come back from China that are in their home and they don't want to come to class, or maybe they're just generally worried and feeling upset because of what's happening at home."

Allison Doughart, left, the community education manager with Holland College's newcomer language program, says the program's absenteeism rate has been 13 per cent since late January. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus on P.E.I., and only seven in Canada. Health officials continue to say the public health risk is low for Canada, and for the Island.

Dispelling myths 'challenging'

But Doughart said some students aren't trusting the information coming from government. 

"They're also getting information from home, and there's a lot of very high emotion right now," she said. "So for the classroom teachers trying to dispel myths and explain to students that we do trust our government officials … that's been challenging."

Doughart said roughly 600 students from around the world are enrolled in the college's newcomer language programs — including students from China.

Canadian health officials have said those returning from the centre of the outbreak in Hubei province, China, should be in quarantine for two weeks. Those coming from other areas of China are being told to monitor themselves closely and to call 811 if they develop any symptoms. 

Sandy MacDonald, Holland College president, says language instructors may start offering online courses next semester if enough students continue to be absent. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Sandy MacDonald, Holland College's president, said instructors are doing what they can to accommodate students who are missing class, sending work home to them when it's possible. 

But he says the 13 per cent absenteeism rate is a concern. 

"The whole idea of the language program is to have students come in and work through their literature levels as quickly as possible," said MacDonald.

"So the more you're out of school, the more time you're going to be training in a language, and the less likely you are to get into the labour market as quickly as you'd like to be."

The president said while it's not ideal, if enough students continue missing class because of coronavirus worries, the college may consider offering them online courses next semester. 

Doughart added the college has also relaxed its policy of removing students from its language programs, if they miss more than two straight weeks of classes. 

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