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Winter 2021 COVID-19 Updates

On Wednesday, November 3, McGill released an update on operations during the coming Winter 2021 semester. Here is a breakdown of the changes and guidelines in the release to clarify what this might mean for McGill students this Winter.

Top three takeaways: (TL;DR)

  • Courses will still be delivered remotely and McGill plans on offering limited, optional in-person activities
  • Certain laboratories and clinical programs that are usually in-person will remain in-person and mandatory for graduation, even if Montreal remains a red zone
  • The University formally recognized that 2 McGill students in residence contracted COVID, but didn’t include any cases that may have occurred during off-campus mandatory activities

What might this mean?

While remote course delivery hasn’t changed, this semester has demonstrated that McGill’s in-person options are limited and subject to change. This caution seems to clash with the second point – in the latest announcement, the McGill administration confirmed that a relatively broad range of in-person education can be expected to be mandatory in some faculties – unless Quebec specifically implements further COVID restrictions. “Red zone” is the highest alert level currently listed by the Quebec government, so further restrictions seem unlikely. Thus, in-person laboratories and clinical activities will be continuing – and introduced for some programs – as the pandemic progresses throughout the province. This leads to the third point: in the announcement, McGill indicated that only two cases have occurred specifically as a result of transmission “on our campuses.” The scope of this statement is currently unclear. This could be concerning, given the precedent McGill has set for not counting off-campus COVID cases – which could ostensibly include cases linked to mandatory university-related activities such as off-campus clinicals.

Campus health and safety

What’s new?

Not much has changed in terms of on-campus health and safety. In several emails, McGill reports an easy and safe increase in staff and student presence on campus, and doesn’t indicate any policy changes. However, in this announcement, they report two cases of on-campus transmission over the past six months (both in residence), despite the University’s September announcement that six cases of COVID-19 had been reported on campus. McGill also indicated that no cases had been linked to workplace transmission or “any academic activities,” though it is unclear whether this includes off-campus activities as well.

What might this mean?

Students can expect that the current regulations for on-campus activity will continue as they have been. McGill’s expressed commitment to health and safety remains strong, although its lack of specificity may remain concerning for some students.

Two tiers of academic activity

Tier 1: Mandatory, in person

    • Students participating in Tier 1 activities have already been informed – no surprises here, per McGill – you should know already if your courses are included in this category
  • Not subject to cancellation under red zone operations, unless stricter regulations are introduced by Quebec
  • Examples: certain “critical” laboratories, clinical activities, project courses, other “experiential in-person components” of classes, including those required for graduation

Tier 2: Optional, in person, on campus

  • Not required, but will be offered by all faculties
  • Subject to change/cancellation if McGill enters red zone operations
  • Examples: seminar courses, tutorials, conference sections, potentially certain labs and lectures

What might this mean?

The first tier is more complicated, and more crucial. While Tier 2 activities are subject to cancellation or change if McGill enters stricter COVID regulations, Tier 1 activities apparently are not – and they include courses mandatory for graduation. This means that some students may be required to attend in-person activities as COVID-19 continues to spread, unless Quebec tightens provincial restrictions specifically including universities and colleges. Exactly what kind of new requirements might cause Tier 1 activities to be cancelled remains unclear, which may be a result of the unpredictability of the pandemic and the government’s response to it. For those in Tier 1 courses, it will be worth tracking Quebec’s pandemic response and staying up to date with McGill’s COVID FAQ.

If you feel that you’re being put at undue risk by your courses, instructors, or McGill’s COVID-19 policies, please contact us at

Updates to the FAQ

Key additions:

In the FAQ, McGill has clarified that:

  • Only students in Tier 1 classes are required to be present on campus
  • Tier 1 activities are still occurring despite Montreal’s current COVID situation because they have been “deemed as essential” and have allegedly been “operating safely”
  • Not attending Tier 2 in-person activities shouldn’t put you at a disadvantage; remote options will be provided
  • Face coverings are recommended when students/instructors are closer than 2 metres, but instructors can’t require them in the classroom
  • Teaching & Learning Services are assisting with the additional workload on instructors of providing both in-person and online activities
  • In-person options are intended to especially help students struggling with online learning

Instructors are required to work on campus if their courses/activities are deemed essential; no cases have been reported of workplace transmission.