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Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19 University Life’

HigherEdCOVIDStudentsUniversity campuses were eerily quiet in early April when the academic year was winding down. Weathering the sixth wave of COVID-19 on the heels of two years of disruption and hybrid learning experiments, a sense of war-weariness hung in the air.  Students, faculty and senior administration were confronting the sticky business of returning to normal with F2F (face-to-face) in-person instruction.

            The Class of 2022 approached graduation after a bifurcated university experience, marked by a normal first year or two, followed by masking-up, toggling back-and-forth to online learning, and persevering through periodic outbreaks.  Presidents, deans and administrators breathed a sigh of relief wondering, in the back of their minds, when will this all end?

A year ago, New Brunswick Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Trevor Holder had sounded a hopeful note. On April 7, 2021, he announced on Global News that he anticipated all universities and colleges would return to in-person learning in the fall. Following the usual laissez-faire approach, when and how it is accomplished was left up to individual post-secondary institutions. That is common in the PSE sector from province-to-province right across Canada.

With the latest variant ripping through Canada in the spring of 2022, no one was making confident public predictions for the coming school year.  Canadian higher education soothsayer Ken Steele, CEO of Eduvation, chose a bizarre metaphor of “chewing on nutty fudge” to capture the situation facing most universities and colleges in N.B. and elsewhere.

“The transition from pandemic to endemic is proving to be sticky, slow-moving and prone to unexpected crunches!” he wrote in his May 12 Eduvation Blog post. “Compared to the quick, clean ‘pivot’ in early 2020, the way OUT of pandemic is proving far more confusing.”

Managing university faculty is often likened to herding cats and, after two years of adapting to new routines, something unexpected was happening, again.  Getting everyone back to in-person teaching was now a sticking point.  University and college leaders, including the deans of education, were facing what Steele aptly described as “the challenges of encouraging (or, alternatively, resisting) a full return to campus this spring, and small wonder – the risks remain nebulous and unclear to most of us.”

SteeleKenEduvation

Working from home, either within commuting distance or out of the country, has its attractions for surprising numbers of university and college instructors.  That was one of the big take-aways from a May 15 Zoom session with faculty of education deans at the 2022 Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) conference. Speaking for Atlantic Canadian education deans, Mount Saint Vincent’s Antony Card was quite candid about the exhausting work of bringing everyone back into the fold. Interim Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Normand Labrie, explained, in some detail, how challenging it was to lead an education school when faculty were geographically scattered and teaching in various modalities.

Surveys of PSE faculty conducted by individual institutions have identified a pattern. According to Ken Steele, about a quarter of employees never want to return to the office, and two-thirds want flexibility and choice. Many institutions have their own internal polls and they tend to confirm the stickiness of the situation.  Commuting daily over long distances with gasoline topping $2 dollars-a-litre is now very unpopular. Finding a consensus on a mandated return to in-person instruction is getting harder not easier.

Universities and colleges are beginning, gradually, to hold more hybrid and in-person events, starting with the current round of convocations.  New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University was typical of many PSE institutions. A buoyant mood returned to Mount A from May 13 to 16 as the university celebrated a multiple-year graduation for the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022. Most of the festivities were actually live and in-person, and everyone was expected to be fully vaccinated and masked.

Graduation celebrations never fail to raise the spirits and this year more so than ever.  “We are excited to welcome our students, recent graduates, faculty, staff, and honoured guests back to Convocation Hall,” Mount Allison University President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau said in a media release. “Over the past two years, the University community has come together to support one another through the pandemic, and we are pleased to be able to recognize and celebrate this year’s graduates as well as the Classes of 2020 and 2021 in traditional Mount Allison fashion.”

Mount Allison student valedictorian Hanna Fuzesi, hailing from Campbellton, NB, found a sense of community at Mount A that helped students through tough COVID-19 times.  Like her peers, half of her university years, were interrupted by the pandemic. She fared far better than many students attending universities who were robbed of a normal university experience.

The March 2020 shutdown proved to be “a turning point” in Hanna’s university career. “The isolation pushed me to become more involved where I could and connect with other students and community members,” she said in the Mount Allison newsletter. “Knowing others were experiencing the same challenges and were working towards common goals really strengthened the sense of community.”

Every university produces exemplary student graduates, many of whom shine in academics and interscholastic sports. It is somehow fitting at the 2022 Mount Allison graduation that a community-service oriented student like Fuzesi was honoured by the university.

Surviving let alone thriving under COVID-19 conditions is worth celebrating. The Class of 2022 will always be remembered for completing their degrees during the pandemic and demonstrating not only flexibility and adaptability, but a new-found resilience that may prove beneficial in their post-graduation years.

Why is returning to normal on Canadian university campuses such a sticky business?  Should cabinet ministers, university presidents and deans step-up to ensure that all classes return to in-person instruction in the coming year? What can university students expect when they return in September 2022?

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