Strike or no strike, these college students are forging ahead with their education

As the Ontario college strike strides confidently into its fourth week without a sign of a compromise anytime soon, some students are taking their education into their own hands.

Most student services at colleges in Ontario are staying open during the strike

Raif Abdalah, centre, acts as the patient while Jessica Wong, left, and Omer Ansair, right, run through a drill for their paramedic course at Centennial College. (Paul Smith/CBC)

As the Ontario college strike rolls into its fourth week without a sign of a compromise coming anytime soon, some students are taking their education into their own hands.

That's what three second year Centennial College paramedic students were doing as they ran emergency drills in the hallways of the school on Monday night.

"I'm just going to listen to your lungs," Omer Ansari said to fellow student Raif Abdalah, who sat on the ground pretending to hyperventilate. Ansari pulled Abdalah's shirt up at the back, and just before he placed the stethoscope on the patient's back he said, "It's going to be a little cold."

Centennial College paramedic students Raif Abdalah, left, and Omer Ansari practise emergency drills in a hallway at the school. (Paul Smith/CBC)

This is just one example of how some of the 500,000 students at 24 public colleges across the province are forging ahead with their education despite the strike.

Meantime, Ontario's colleges have called for striking faculty to vote on a final contract offer, after talks to end the weeks-long labour disruption broke down on Monday.

The College Employer Council, which represents the province's 24 colleges, said it has asked Ontario's Labour Relations Board to schedule the vote.

The board has also called on the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union, representing the 12,000 college workers, to suspend the strike in the five to 10 days it will take to organize the vote.

OPSEU, however, said there were no plans to suspend the labour disruption.

Throughout the work stoppage, colleges have remained open and most support services, such as the student associations, tutoring and school fitness centres, are available to students, even though classes are cancelled.

"Right now, we're just doing everything that we've learned so far … over and over again," Centennial paramedic student Jessica Wong told CBC Toronto.

Staying positive, Wong and her fellow students say the strike has allowed for more time be active mentors to the first year students, but they admit they're anxious.

"It is a bit frustrating," Wong said. She's worried that ride-alongs scheduled for students with professional paramedics for December won't take place if the strike continues. 

"We just want to be prepared for that. These are real people that we're dealing with," she told CBC Toronto.

'The first week felt like business as usual'

Tyson Lautenschlager, who is in his final year of the journalism program at Humber College, is part of a small group of students making the trip into the school's newsroom on the north campus every day to continue reporting for and the school's newspaper, Humber Et Cetera.

"The first week felt like business as usual," said Lautenschlager.

He told CBC Toronto there was an enthusiasm in the first week. Around 11 people showed up to help report for the website and put out the newspaper's first "strike edition" that Friday. The dean of the School of Media Studies, Guillermo Acosta, and a few assistant deans were pitching in as well.  

Journalism student Tyson Lautenschlager works in Humber College's newsroom during the strike. (Dan Caudle/Twitter)

"They have been there for support and just to be a second pair of eyes on copy, because as students we are still learning and we are going to make mistakes," he said.

But when the second week hit, Lautenschlager said a gloom set in, and the number of students coming in every day dwindled to five.

"People are getting really frustrated, really discouraged," he said. "You're getting to this point where you're getting legitimately worried about your school year, your semester."

Still, Lautenschlager and his fellow students are going out every day and reporting on everything from the latest mass shooting in the U.S. to the grocery store price-fixing investigation. And of course, they're reporting on the strike.

In fact, these students are bringing their equipment to the picket line, and instead of the teachers coaching from behind the camera, they are now the subject of the story.

Humber College journalism students Matt Owczarz, left, and Brett McGarry report on an OPSEU rally on Nov. 2 at Queen's Park. (Mike Karapita/Twitter)

"It definitely feels strange reporting on our own teachers, but I also know they understand that we're doing it simply to report on the news," he said. "I truly think they support what we're doing. They're our teachers, and they want us to succeed."

A lost semester could be 'disastrous'

April Heighway, a second-year student in the addictions and mental health program at Centennial College, has been meeting with her classmates not only at the school library, but also through virtual study groups on google docs and a messaging service called WhatsApp.

"I really am scared that I'll be very overwhelmed when we go back to school," said Heighway. "So I figure if I keep on top of it, and I have everything caught up, then when we go back it will be an easier transition."

The staff member who arranges the placements for students is still working at her college, so Heighway is spending extra time at her placement at a youth shelter in the city.

She also tutors a first-year student in the same program, and the strike has allowed their work together to flourish.

That's not to say that she is happy. Heighway echoes many students' fears that the strike might cause the semester to be lost.

"That would be really disastrous, I think, for many, many students."​