York University's quick switch to in-person learning next semester leaves some students behind

York University's recent decision to return to mostly in-person learning next semester is facing a backlash from some staff and students who say it's rushed, unsafe and making it impossible for them to finish their degrees on time.

York University says 80% of courses will be offered in person only, up from 30% this fall

A man with a backpack walks past a sign saying 'York University - Keele Campus - Sentinel Road.'
Students of York University, which is transitioning back to in-person leaning, are pictured on campus on Thursday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

York University's recent decision to return to mostly in-person learning next semester is facing a backlash from some staff and students who say it's rushed, unsafe and making it impossible for them to finish their degrees on time. 

In late-October, the school informed students and faculty that come January, it will no longer offer the majority of courses over Zoom. Instead, 80 per cent will be offered in person only, unless students can make accommodations with teaching staff on a case-by-case basis. 

Then in November, the university switched many classes that were to be online to in person.

Close to 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for York University to be more flexible and allow students to continue learning online if they want to.

"If anyone should be accommodated, it should be students," said Carrie Cooper who's in the final year of her history degree.

"We're the ones paying tuition; we're trying to graduate and get through the pandemic."

Cooper said she spent weeks this summer meticulously picking online winter courses.The only way she's been able to afford tuition — about $750 a course — the last couple of years is by living in her family's London, Ont. home, working two part-time jobs and learning remotely.

She was under the impression a hybrid option would be available even if the university moved to more in-person learning in the winter.

Some students say they haven't been given enough notice to move back to Toronto in time for in-person learning in January. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

However, as of Nov. 19, most of her courses have now been switched to in-person only. She said she now won't be able to get all the credits she needs to graduate with Honours and will instead settle for a Bachelor's degree. 

"We're still in a pandemic. I don't know why we're acting like it's over," Cooper said,. "And it's just putting more of a mental load on students."

Too short notice, student says

York University spokesperson Yanni Dagonas told CBC News the school has "consistently" communicated plans to staff and students through mass emails and social media. The first time it had shared details about its expectations for in-person learning was on Oct. 19 and updated course formats, including changing many from online to in-person, a month later. 

"We recognize that students need predictability in order to plan for upcoming terms," Dagonas said. "Those students who prefer online learning have been advised to choose courses that are planned for online delivery."

He said the university has also taken safety precautions, such as providing rapid testing and hand sanitizer on campus and improving air flow in buildings.

Maija Goranson found out in late October she'd be required to attend four of her five courses at York University in person in January. She lives an 18-hour drive away and says she can't afford to move back in time. (Submitted by Maija Goranson)

But Maija Goranson, a second-year psychology student, said the courses that are still being offered online are all full. And four of her five courses that were supposed to be available for remote students are now in person only.

At the start of the pandemic, she moved 1,700-kilometres back home to Atikokan, Ont. — east of Thunder Bay. Returning to Toronto in time for the winter semester is not an option financially or logistically, she said.

"I'm not completely opposed to going back in person. I just wish they would give us more time to prepare," Goranson said. "It felt like it happened overnight."

She said she has no choice but to drop four courses and try to make them up in the future.

York's decision tough on staff, union says

Across the province, universities have taken different approaches to coping with the pandemic this school year, although the vast majority of schools, including York University, require students to be vaccinated to go on campus. Western and Queen's mostly returned to in-person learning this fall, while McMaster University has continued to offer most courses online.

Ryerson University told CBC News about 20 per cent of its classes are now in-person, which will increase next semester but with most offices continuing to offer online options.

Riaz Nandan, the president of the York Federation of Students, pictured at the university on Thursday. Right now, the campus is nearly empty, but come January, thousands of students will return as York transitions back to in-person learning. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While many students want to return to in-person learning, the university should be more flexible for international students and those who don't have housing in Toronto or aren't comfortable learning without physical distancing, said Riaz Nandan, York University's student union president. 

Under the province's rules, physical distancing isn't required for indoor lecture halls, which can seat hundreds of people. 

Vanessa Lehan, who teaches philosophy at York University, said she's agreed to accommodate students who can't make it to in-person lectures in the winter, but she anticipates it will double her workload. She said she's hoping the university reverses course on in-person learning, or better addresses the barriers some students and staff are facing.

As chairperson for CUPE Local 3903, which represents some education workers at York, she's heard from colleagues who feel the same way.

"People are extremely concerned about their extra work, whether they'll even be able to do it," Lehan said. 

"And the safety issues are a concern too. We have members who have vulnerable family members and York has rejected any request for accommodation on that basis."