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Why experts worry about students returning to university residences amid COVID-19

As tens of thousands of students start moving back into university and college dorms, some health experts are concerned safety protocols might not be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

While schools may have safety protocols, students will want to socialize, doctors warn

Cheng Xueqiong stands outside George Brown College where she will attend classes in the fall. Cheng says she's concerned about living in closer proximity to other students during the pandemic. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

As universities and colleges across Ontario prepare for tens of thousands of students to move back into dorms next week, some health experts are concerned safety protocols the schools have put in place may not be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

That's not just because residences pose similar challenges to other congregate living situations, according to Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. 

"As much as universities are going to have rules, there's going to be an element of wanting to socialize and interact with people," she said. 

"Striking that balance may be challenging." 

That social aspect of university life is precisely why first-year student Cheng Xueqiong initially chose to live in residence. 

"I'm looking forward to it, but I'm worried as well," said Cheng, who is studying baking and pastry arts at Toronto's George Brown College.

Right now, the 22-year-old is living in a house and has limited contact with others, but she's concerned about living in closer proximity to other students.

"We still need to share the oven and laundry room," she told CBC Toronto. 

1 student per room

Like many schools, George Brown has implemented safety protocols aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus as students move back to campus. 

They include:

  • Staggering move-in dates. 
  • Limiting occupancy to one student per suite/room. 
  • Holding many welcome week activities virtually. 

If anyone gets sick, George Brown has dedicated a floor in its residence for students who need to isolate. 

Keeping students safe

Other post-secondary schools, such as Toronto's Ryerson University, are limiting access for guests, while the University of Toronto's residence cafeterias are focusing on takeout. 

The University of Guelph has decided to allow only international students and those who face special circumstances, such as limited internet access at home, to live on campus. 

As much as you try to limit contact, that's still going to happen. - Ashleigh Tuite, University of Toronto

York University has mandated masks for all common areas on campuses, including common areas in residences, and academic and administrative buildings. 

At the University of British Columbia, officials have closed common spaces or have removed seating from those areas. 

Despite these measures, Tuite said there are circumstances beyond schools' control. 

"You're on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. You have people who want to get out. They're living in close quarters," she said.

Epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says the best way to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools is to ensure case numbers are low before reopening them. (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto)

"As much as you try to limit contact, that's still going to happen." 

She warned that university-age and college-age students transmit the virus more easily and get sicker than young children. Recent research suggests kids over the age of 10 can spread COVID-19 as easily as adults.

Tuite pointed to many American universities that are testing students regularly and suggested Canadian schools could consider doing the same "to really get a handle on what's happening in the communities." 

'They need to own their behaviour'

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at the University Health Network and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, said a number of measures could help slow the spread of the virus among post-secondary students.

"Masks in common areas, hand sanitation centres, and reminders or protocols for physical distancing will be helpful," he told CBC Toronto in an email. But Bogoch agreed with Tuite that keeping students apart will be a challenge.

"I think adherence to physical distancing in a dorm-type scenario may be an issue."

Chris McGrath, vice-president of student success at George Brown College, says the school will have fewer students living in residence. (George Brown College)

For Chris McGrath, vice-president of student success at George Brown, a large part of the responsibility is on the students to make good choices. He said a residence is like any congregate living situation, like a condo or apartment. 

"[Residents] are in elevators wearing masks. They're moving through hallways wearing masks," he said. 

"It's really imparting the importance with our students they need to own their own behaviour and protect themselves to protect their community." 

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