On February 23, university administration informed students that many in-person activities will resume in the Fall 2021 semester regardless of the status of coronavirus in Montreal. This early announcement follows a tumultuous year of unpredictable lockdown measures. While it seems like a step towards normalcy, the Daily spoke with many students who feel it is a risky decision on the part of the university.
With McGill being one of the most international schools in Canada, it must accommodate students worldwide. McGill’s announcement to increase in-person activities has several international students uncertain about getting into Canada to access in-person teaching due to border restrictions. Sharon Orkeh, a first year international student from Nigeria, told the Daily she plans to stay in Montreal for the summer, fearing she won’t be able to return for the fall semester.
Despite Associate Provost Christopher Buddle’s claim that the university will work with faculties to accommodate students who are at risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms, it is unclear how the university will accommodate students’ needs. In an interview with the Daily, 2020-2021 SSMU president Jemark Earle expressed that while in-person activity may improve the mental health of the majority of students, those who are unable to attend in-person classes may feel excluded from the McGill community. Earle speculated that this could lead to a decline in their mental health. Sophia*, a second-year psychology student, was unsure that the return to campus would have a positive impact on students’ mental health: “I can’t imagine the adjustment struggles and stress it will put on students’ mental health and grades (as well as my own) come in-person teaching in the fall.” Furthermore, Sophia claimed that most students and professors “have adjusted at this point,” so a return to campus may not yield significant mental health benefits. Earle expresses that lots of planning will be necessary in order to fulfill McGill’s vision of increased in-person activities in the Fall 2021 semester but is not quite sure what this will look like yet. Additionally, SSMU president-elect Darshan Daryanani claimed that there has been a “lack of consultation with student groups” as university administration plans the return to in-person activities.
“I can’t imagine the adjustment struggles and stress it will put on students’ mental health and grades… come in-person teaching in the fall.”– Sophia, second-year student
Other students are simply cautious to trust McGill’s commitment to in-person activities. Annabel Hayes, a first-year science student, told the Daily that she is excited at the prospect of increased in-person activities, but said that it has “been a year of let downs” causing her to have reservations. In an email to the Daily, Sophia expressed that McGill made the announcement too soon and said that the university should have followed Concordia’s lead to wait until May for a decision. They pointed out that the reopening of schools in Quebec has led to an increase in COVID-19 cases, and worried that reopening McGill may similarly cause a rise in cases: “I can only imagine the severity of the consequences should we open up a school like McGill with 40,000 students.” The announcement also left some SSMU representatives shocked, as they were not informed of the university’s decisions prior to the announcement. This left Earle unable to respond to student’s questions and concerns immediately following the announcement. Daryanani highlighted that town halls and SSMU Senate meetings have often left students with “more questions than answers” about the fall semester.
Finally, the most concerning aspect for many students is the safety precautions the university will take. McGill’s awareness for student’s physical and mental health needs has historically been unreliable, which makes several students wary that attending in-person activities won’t be safe. With the vaccine rollout for the fall so uncertain, and rising cases in Quebec, Sophia suggested the university wait “until [a] minimum of Winter 2022” to return to in-person activities.” Sophia says that safe schooling “relates to how safe Covid measures are and how many cases there are”. Sophia doesn’t think these indicators suggest that it is safe to make promises about in-person teaching for the 2021 fall semester.
However, several students, while cautious, are pleased by the announcement as it shows a turn in the tides of the brutal situation the university faces. First-year student Sharon Orkeh expressed excitement about the “possibilities” that will come along with in-person activities. Another student, Emily Roest, says she “has faith it will be somewhat better than this year.” According to Daryanani, all that students know for certain is that the Fall 2021 semester will not look like Fall 2020, but “neither will it look like Fall 2019.”
To address the needs of the student body, Daryanani plans to host town hall meetings as “an open channel for feedback from students.” Additionally, SSMU recently circulated an open letter calling on university administrators to prohibit mandatory in-person lectures, increase transparency regarding masking policies, and provide a remote option for the Fall 2021 semester, among other things.
* Some names have been changed for anonymity.