Immunocompromised students scramble for online options with return to in-person classes

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Willow Robinson plans to graduate from the University of Ottawa this year, but to graduate safely, she’s spending thousands of dollars taking online classes at a school more than 3,500 kilometers away.

Lectures at Athabasca University in Alberta were the only virtual options she could find that met course requirements while avoiding exposure to COVID-19, according to Robinson, who has a progressive degenerative muscle disorder and nerves and takes medication that lowers his immune response.

She is not alone. Robinson is also the coordinator of the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) at the University of Ottawa and says she works with at least 81 other students who are struggling to find professors who will accept online learning because they don’t cannot attend classes in person. .

“Many of our students are suffering right now,” she said, describing the university’s position as “lack of care [and] lack of ethical response.”

Lack of campus-wide protocols leaves faculty improvising on COVID-19 safety

Vivek Krishnamurthy, a professor at the University of Ottawa, says he’s been trying to find ways to make in-person learning safer for his students despite the lack of university-wide protocols.

After more than two years of the pandemic, the COVID-19 measures in place during previous waves have been abandoned, leaving post-secondary students and staff to figure out how to proceed safely. While many have happily returned to in-person classes, others don’t have that option and Robinson said they were forced to choose between their health and their education.

The situation has created a vacuum where schools or governments should step in, said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Institutions at this level have a leadership responsibility. They set the tone, they set the moral agenda, and people follow suit,” he explained.

“If they don’t take the steps to mitigate transmission, people will assume the crisis is over and the pandemic is over and none of those things are true.”

University’s message on COVID-19 safety is ‘confusing’ for everyone, professor says

Stuart Murray, professor of rhetoric and ethics at Carleton University, says the “flip-flop” on COVID-19 safety protocols has been confusing for students and faculty, with a shift from community responsibility to individual preferences.

University focused on “exciting” campus life

A post on the University of Ottawa website about returning to class in September, said learning would take place primarily on campus, with no more than 10-20% of courses offered online.

The university said ventilation has been improved to meet or exceed public health standards and stresses a desire to return to the “vibrant and exciting” campus life enjoyed before the pandemic.

The University of Ottawa, like Carleton University and Algonquin College, continues to follow provincial guidelines that recommend people wear masks and get vaccinated to protect against the virus, but make none mandatory.

That leaves lecturers in a position where they can request, but cannot demand, that masks be worn in class, said Stuart Murray, professor of rhetoric and ethics at Carleton.

He cares for two elderly people who are undergoing chemotherapy and said his students have been “fantastic” about masking so far. The university has provided him with masks to distribute and he is using a larger classroom so people can space themselves out.

How universities are navigating COVID-19 and returning to campus

Infectious disease expert Dr. Zain Chagla breaks down the different approaches Canadian universities are taking to COVID-19 safety and what makes sense right now.

Still, he said, the language of the recommendations and the emphasis on personal choice seem strange compared to messages previously used during the pandemic, describing it as an “about-face”.

“Words like support and respect implied community and our responsibility to others,” he said.

“Remember, ‘We’re all in this together?’ It’s something we’ve been hearing for two years, but now suddenly it’s all about the individual kind of “You make yourself.”

Murray said he would like to see a temporary return to masking at the start of the colder months, suggesting it makes more sense to be proactive than reactive.

In search of leadership

University of Ottawa law professor Vivek Krishnamurthy has found ways to create “the safest possible environment” for his students.

He is delighted that students are back on campus and said more learning is happening in person but, like Murray, he asks students to wear masks.

“My feeling is that masking on campus seems to be the exception rather than the rule,” Krishnamurthy said. After discussing it with his classes, the professor also dug up an old iPad which he now uses to provide an online option so students who show symptoms don’t feel pressured to come to class for attendance grades.

A man in a blue jacket smiles as he stands next to a burgundy sign for the University of Ottawa.
Vivek Krishnamurthy is a law professor at the University of Ottawa. (Jean Delisle/Radio-Canada)

The professor said his experience shows individuals can make a difference, even with a lack of provincial or university support, but noted there was some “concern” on campus about a lack of leadership.

“I would like to see more leadership from the university and the province, knowing what we now know more than two and a half years into the pandemic about effective interventions to keep us safe.”

Western University made headlines in late August when it announced that at least three doses of the vaccine would be mandatory for staff, students and some visitors – a move that has led to protests and a legal challenge.

Deonandan said he believed imposing vaccines or even masks could lead to a “revolt”, but that some common sense measures should be in place. The question is, which ones?

For Robinson, this semester has seen a loss of readily available housing over the past two school years. She wants students using CSD services to have access to recorded lectures and grades, and thinks professors should help students learn online.

The University of Ottawa “strongly recommends” that professors record lectures for students who cannot attend, according to a spokesperson.

But for Robinson, the focus on students who are excited to return to class is demeaning to those who cannot. She added that the university’s approach appears to be aimed at bringing students back to campus where they will spend money.

“Between our money and our lives, life matters most,” she said.

“Part of the reason we fight so hard for this is that university accommodation is not… a privilege. It is a right.”

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