What will university look like this fall as a result of the coronavirus?

Socializing is a big part of the post-secondary experience. For now, that aspect of university life doesn’t seem to be available—at least not in the usual ways.

Stacy Lee Kong
A medical student in Tunis wears a face mask in a lecture hall.

A medical student in Tunis wears a face mask in a lecture hall. If Canadian students are able to study on campus in the fall, face masks, bigger venues and night classes are among the changes can expect.
(Photo credit should read Jdidi Wassim / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Bronwyn James, a grade 12 student from Toronto, has narrowed down her choice of university to two: NSCAD University in Halifax and Ryerson University in her hometown. She’s torn between studying interdisciplinary design at NSCAD and graphic communications management at Ryerson—and, since the coronavirus pandemic started earlier this spring, between moving halfway across the country and sticking close to home.

“NSCAD is so far away,” she says. “If [a lockdown] happens again, I’m not sure I want to be far away from my family. And I don’t really know anyone in Halifax, so that would be kind of hard.”

But the question of moving may be moot. Because it’s still unclear whether NSCAD’s campus—and those of schools across the country—will be open in the fall. Sure, they’re offering classes. But will students be in physical classrooms, or virtual ones? 

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Universities are starting to indicate their plans. St. Francis Xavier is preparing for classes to restart on-campus and in-person in September, according to a message on the school’s website from its president, Kevin Wamsley. The universities of Ottawa and Montreal, McGill, UBC and the University of Victoria have recently announced that most instruction will be delivered remotely in the fall. 

Most schools aren’t prepared yet to commit to physically re-opening in September. And those hoping for some in-person instruction are making contingency plans for an online-only semester in the event of another outbreak. “Universities will be designing [curricula] in such a way that they can be nimble,” says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. They’ll be able “to move quickly to face-to-face and make the move back online should there be a second or third wave of the pandemic.”

That’s because public health guidelines will almost certainly shift between now and September—and they’ll differ by province. “There’s differences in case counts, [as well as] other important factors, such as local health system capacity, local public health capacity and the capacity of institutions and businesses to put in place the measures that will be required,” says Vivek Goel, vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto and a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “I think we’re not only going to see the restarts happen at different times across the country, they will also unroll at a different pace, depending on how things go.”

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And even if students are allowed to spend part of their fall semester on campus, it will likely look like a very different place. Mass-gathering restrictions will have implications on class sizes, and that will have a cascading impact on the way schools use space. “If you have to maintain a two-metre separation, a classroom that you might use for 500 people can actually only be used for 150 or 200,” Goel says. “Right now, we’re doing a lot of modelling of every classroom [at U of T] to see how many people can be allowed into that particular room.”

This will also affect scheduling. Schools “might have to offer instruction more hours per day in order to get students into a physical setting,” Davidson says. “[We] might have to run courses on weekends.” And, he says, schools may push some curriculum components such as labs and practicums to the winter semester, so that the fall semester can more easily pivot between online and in-person classes. He does emphasize that, however students “attend” class, schools are open now for their summer semesters and will be open in the fall. 

Schools are also trying to figure out how to offer student services such as mental health and career counselling online. They’re working with employers to ensure students can still have co-ops and internships, and they’re planning for digital orientation, which will likely follow the model set by universities that offered online orientation events for their summer semesters. At Simon Fraser University, for example, students took part in a live chat event on May 8, where they met staff, faculty and fellow students, received tips for a “balanced and successful year” and built their second-term schedules. Likewise, student groups and campus clubs, says Davidson, are trying to come up with contingency plans. But he acknowledges that addressing the social side of things will be another big challenge.

“How do you create space for students to hang in? Those late-night conversations that happen on campus—how do you recreate that ambience?” he says.

Meeting people and socializing is a big part of the post-secondary experience for most students. But for now, that aspect of university life does not seem to be available—at least not in the usual and familiar ways. “When you live in a dorm, there’s a huge community within your own home,” says Corey Shaffer, a grade 12 student from Thornhill, Ont., who is choosing between math programs at Guelph and Western. “You get to meet new people, the social [aspect] is fun, and there might be people who are taking the same classes who can help you out. So it’s a little shocking that I might not get to ‘go’ to university.”

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To counteract that uncertainty, Davidson says schools are “being very active in their communications with prospective students,” by sending regular email updates. But they can only do so much—and some schools may be overwhelmed by questions from high school seniors. Bronwyn James has been trying to figure out how much of her time would be spent on design versus technical exercises if she chooses Ryerson’s graphic communications management program, but that’s not a question the admissions department can answer yet. 

And then there’s the question of fees. Students are asking whether tuition for an online-only semester will be reduced; some current students called for this during the winter semester, arguing that online education is “inferior.” Despite the disruption to the second semester, universities did complete their academic programs, and they did not provide tuition refunds. Some schools offered refunds or credits on residence fees, meal plans and other student fees. Looking ahead to fall, Davidson says universities are committed to “offering a high quality post-secondary academic experience. The mode of delivery may be different, but the quality and the experience should be as good or better.” That means tuition fees are unlikely to change. Schools are assessing whether they will be able to offer services such as residence, parking and meal plans, and conversations are still underway about non-tuition fees, such as those that fund campus fitness centres, career services, wellness centres, and student unions, so students may see some savings on those costs. 

For James, time is running out—while most schools have a June 1 deadline to accept an offer of admission, NSCAD’s deadlines are earlier, so she has just a few weeks to figure out if she can still get the university experience she wants, despite the pandemic.

“The best-case scenario is that there wouldn’t be a second wave and I could just go on with my [life]. Everything would just be normal,” she says. But she also says that’s “not very” likely to happen.