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Ontario post-secondary schools told to prepare for normal fall with backup plans

Last Updated Jul 19, 2021 at 5:10 pm EDT

The Ryerson University Student Campus Centre is pictured in Toronto on June 2, 2021. Students and professors have begun calling the school “X University” amid increasing calls for the university to change its name. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Rachel Verbin THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Rachel Verbin

TORONTO – Ontario colleges and universities should prepare for all in-person classes and activities to resume this fall without capacity limits or physical distancing, the government says, though many institutions will still use a mix of in-person and online learning.

The Ministry of Colleges and Universities has told the institutions to have plans for how learning will continue in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“While we must remain vigilant and responsive to the trajectory of COVID-19, I am optimistic that the (post-secondary education) sector will resume many of the cherished in-person experiences that have been on pause for so long,” deputy minister Shelley Tapp wrote in a recent memo to the institutions.

Tapp said physical distancing may not be required on campuses but masks and other relevant measures will be required for indoor settings.

“While this is the planning assumption for Fall 2021, it is important to be mindful that we must remain vigilant and prepared with respect to COVID-19 trends and indicators and be aligned with broader reopening planning,” the memo reads.

“While the Ministry of Colleges and Universities looks forward to supporting the PSE sector in a return to in-person activity as safely as possible beginning in September, I want to emphasize that PSE institutions continue to have the flexibility to deliver academic instruction in the mode that best suits the needs of students and institutions, including virtual and hybrid delivery models.”

RELATED: Ontario science advisory group recommends extracurriculars resume, schools stay open

She said the ministry also encourages on-campus vaccination clinics and rapid testing programs.

The schools will still have the flexibility to offer teaching in a variety of ways that best suit their needs, Tapp wrote, including virtual and hybrid models.

The University of Windsor is planning for on-campus activities to resume and for a mix of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses. A spokeswoman said a variety of factors went into deciding which methods would be used for which courses, including class sizes, student population, facilities, and whether the course relies on lectures or labs.

“For example, students in fine arts-acting have a strong need to have their course material delivered in person, while other students who receive their courses in a more traditional lecture-style way do not,” said Lori Lewis.

Capacity limits and distancing are currently part of the university’s fall plan, but Lewis said it is constantly evolving.

McMaster University is offering courses that are listed as either in-person, online, virtual, or a combination. It is telling students that for “in-person” courses, “there will be varying levels of in-person engagement throughout the term.”

Seneca College is also planning a mix of four approaches: online, in person, hybrid – which will involve some online instruction and some hands-on lab time in class – and flexible, which involves students choosing when to watch a lecture online and when to attend in person, for example.

Queen’s University, however, is preparing for a full return to campus for September, with no class-size limits or physical distancing requirements, though masks will still be required in indoor common areas.

In case of COVID-19 outbreaks, institutions must have a “continuity of education” plan ready by September, including information on health protocols in the event of an emergency and how instruction will continue if in-person learning is disrupted.

Specific guidance from the ministry on measures such as masks, screening and cleaning is set to be issued in early August.

The ministry is encouraging schools to use rapid antigen testing for routine screening of asymptomatic people, as well as wastewater surveillance for levels of COVID-19.

The NDP’s colleges and universities critic, Laura Mae Lindo, said resuming classes “is more complicated than just opening the doors,” and called for the government to provide increased funding, including for onsite rapid testing and upgraded ventilation systems.

The province announced approximately $100 million in March for post-secondary schools that have lost revenue while incurring additional pandemic-related expenses.

The Council of Ontario Universities has said the institutions are facing a shortfall of $500 million related to the pandemic.

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