University of Winnipeg students and staff will ring in the winter term remotely, following an announcement the school will shift online again in early 2022 due to worries daily COVID-19 cases could soar in coming weeks.
"We understand that these measures will cause disruption and we share your frustration with the ongoing public health situation," James Currie, interim president and vice-chancellor, wrote in an update Thursday.
In the déjà-vu announcement, Currie said rising concerns about the highly transmissible Omicron variant — including stark public health projections announced Wednesday — have sparked the decision to revert to remote learning.
The move was made "to exercise an abundance of caution" to safeguard the health of all community members, Currie said, adding U of W leaders met with the faculty association to discuss the matter beforehand.
The majority of courses, aside from labs and other classes that require in-person training, will be delivered virtually until the school’s winter reading week wraps up at the end of February.
During that period, employees who are able to work remotely will be asked to do so.
The downtown Winnipeg institution, which is scheduled to reopen after the holiday break Jan. 5, has pledged to revisit its plans at the end of January.
“We understand that these measures will cause disruption and we share your frustration with the ongoing public health situation.” — James Currie, University of Winnipeg interim president and vice-chancellor
Meantime, the University of Manitoba’s phased reopening is anticipated to continue, with in-person operations ramping up to pre-pandemic levels Jan. 24, the first day of its winter term, which was delayed because of a fall faculty strike.
Immunocompromised students and learners who live abroad want the institution, the largest of its kind in Manitoba, to follow U of W’s lead.
To date, roughly 81 per cent of U of M students and 72 per cent of employees have uploaded their proof of vaccination — a requirement to attend campus this winter — to the school’s website.
The university’s safety measures also include mandating use of a three-ply reusable or disposable mask for indoor and outdoor campus activity and adjusting systems to incorporate air purifiers and increase both outdoor air intake and air exchanges.
For Virginia Page Jähne, a 72-year-old PhD student, those protocols fall short of addressing her concerns about protecting both herself and her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease, from the new Omicron variant.
"I understand that a lot of people want to go in-person, and I am very sympathetic, but I think what’s happening here is we are making a comparison of people who are inconvenienced and people who are life-threatened," said Page Jähne, who is studying the intersection of ableism and ageism.
In response to a request to continue online learning this winter, the senior student said she was given three options: defer her studies; find remote courses at another institution; or come back to campus.
“I understand that a lot of people want to go in-person, and I am very sympathetic, but I think what’s happening here is we are making a comparison of people who are inconvenienced and people who are life-threatened." — Virginia Page Jähne, a 72-year-old PhD student at University of Manitoba
Earlier this week, when asked about reopening plans, U of M president Michael Benarroch said the school’s plan is to welcome everyone back to campus.
"It’s always under discussion, because we’ve learned from COVID that whatever plans you have may have to be adjusted," said Benarroch, who oversees a university with an enrolment of approximately 31,000 and employs upwards of 9,000 people.
(The U of W, which generally has smaller class sizes than U of M, has fewer than 10,000 students and roughly 1,150 employees.)
Graduate student Sasha Braun said she is frustrated administration has not planned for any accommodations since it announced a tentative 2022 return to in-person operations more than nine months ago.
"It’s very ironic, because the university is calling this a ‘safe return’ but they’re putting the people who are the most vulnerable — the immunocompromised, the elderly and so forth, they’re putting us at risk," said Braun, who is in the English department.
"As someone who is immunocompromised, I’ve always had to fight the university tooth and nail to get accommodations. The pandemic has offered us a moment where we can do better."
In an email Thursday, a university spokesperson said U of M recognizes there are pandemic-related issues outside of students’ control, be they disruptions to travel plans or medical requirements, and encouraged students to contact administration about concerns.
“The university wants to get back to normal operations and this two-track system is simply not feasible, to have every class taught both in-person and online.” — Brendan Scott, president of the undergraduate students union
"The university wants to get back to normal operations and this two-track system is simply not feasible, to have every class taught both in-person and online," said Brendan Scott, president of the undergraduate students union.
Scott said the union encourages professors to record their lectures and post them for students, and has advocated for more online options in future terms to meet student needs. He also noted the majority of students want to go back to campus.
The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, which represents academics at both U of W and U of M, put out a release Wednesday to call on administrators to increase safety measures and if necessary, make early calls to revert to remote learning.
"Omicron definitely makes me more hesitant, but I think we have a lot of tools that we could use to ensure the safest environment possible," said Aleeza Gerstein, an assistant professor in microbiology and statistics at the U of M.
Gerstein wants to teach students in-person and in order to do so, said her employer should mandate N95 masks, require a booster shot to visit campus, and supply educators with CO2 meters to gauge the quality of ventilation in classrooms.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.