Mixed emotions among students as U of S calls everyone back to campus

The University of Saskatchewan has informed students that in-person learning and research activities will officially — and "safely" — return to campus on Feb. 7, 2022.

Some are excited to head back, while others say the risk is simply too high

The University of Saskatchewan has informed students that in-person learning and research activities will officially, and 'safely,' return to campus on Feb. 7, 2022. (Facebook)

Students have mixed feelings about heading back to campus at the University of Saskatchewan next week. 

"The university is forcing us back prematurely," said Jeremy Storring, a fifth-year computer science major and teaching assistant. He pointed out that Omicron is still peaking in Saskatchewan, the hospitals are overwhelmed and medical experts are still asking people to minimize gatherings and contact. 

Saskatchewan hit a record of 372 hospitalizations related to COVID-19 on Wednesday, with Saskatoon accounting for more than half of Saskatchewan's total in-patient hospitalizations. 

"There's good data to prove it's not a wise decision to shove 20,000 students into one campus," he said. "There's safety online." 

The decision to pull people back to campus was guided by several factors, according to the U of S pandemic response and recovery team. The team provided notice to students this week indicating that "learning and research activities will safely return to campus beginning Feb. 7." 

Factors considered by the team include "the levelling off of new positive cases, levels below prior peaks in COVID-19 viral load detected in wastewater, and high uptake of COVID-19 vaccine boosters by our campus community." Students will still be required to mask on campus and are encouraged to stay home if sick. 

Desiree Couillonneur has mixed feelings about the return, because community spread is still a concern. However, she said she's hopeful people following all of the protocols will minimize the risk. 

She lives in a small apartment and is looking forward to being back in a bigger space with like-minded peers, free from the distractions of her home. 

"It's going to be weird to actually be walking on campus compared to when I was there before the pandemic, but it's exciting because I actually get to be there in person which is better than what I find at home." 

In-person learning is easier and better for post-secondary students, Storring said. However, he said distance learning can be done and right now it makes sense. He said it would have been ideal for the university to transition some classes — like hands-on labs or other classes that require an in-person presence — while keeping others remote. 

Storring lives with chronic illness and has deemed the risk of returning to campus is too high for him. Unless the university changes its course, he said he will have to change his own. 

"I'm absolutely valuing my safety over education at this moment, so if it comes down to it — if they don't make a change, I'll unfortunately be dropping a few classes that I will then take through another university who is offering it online," he said. "It's not an ideal situation, I'm going to delay my graduation a little bit." 

He said there are too many unknowns for him about the long-term implications of catching COVID-19. 

The pandemic response team and the president's executive committee at the university said in their notice to students that they consulted with "many university partners and heard feedback from faculty, staff and students prior to deciding to return to campus."

But Storring is skeptical about what consultation took place, saying he and his peers are unaware of any outreach. Storring said his peers are frustrated that they have to shift, once again, during the middle of a semester while COVID-19 continues to strain the provincial health-care system. 

The university's pandemic response team said it will monitor the evolving COVID-19 situation.