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Before the COVID-19 pandemic there were about 120 beds available to the Stratford school’s students in the community but now there are only about 60.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

The Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business is the best place in Stratford, Ont. to get a bird’s-eye view of the small city that punches above its weight as a cultural destination.

This University of Waterloo satellite campus is mainly housed in a building that looks like an alien observation vessel that landed smack-dab in the centre of town. Its north-facing wall is one giant glass window and from the third floor you can watch comings and goings all over downtown.

Normally, passersby can also look into the building that opened in 2012 and see a bustle of activity, but that hasn’t been the case since its classes went remote in March, 2020.

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That will start to change next week along with many other universities across Canada as a new term begins.

But just as the Stratford Festival re-opened to smaller audiences early this summer, the Stratford School will first re-open with just 30 per cent of the courses in its popular undergraduate program in global business and digital arts returning to in-person form.

Many of the program’s 712 students simply can’t come to campus yet – especially the international ones who have been attracted to the interdisciplinary program.

There are visa delays or vaccination issues keeping away students who have enrolled from India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Taiwan – and so required courses are staying online this fall.

On Tuesday, Christine McWebb, director of the Stratford School, was showing me around campus, talking about the imminent return of some in-person classes, when she ran into Raymond Drainville, a professor of digital media and visual culture, who she herself hadn’t encountered in the flesh for over a year.

“Can I give you a hug?” Drainville said, putting down bags of snacks (Célébration cookies, mixed nuts) he had bought for the hungry students he would soon be teaching in person again.

How much interaction is too much now? The Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business’s open-concept building was designed to naturally facilitate such casual run-ins that might lead, potentially, to creative collaboration – but that now clashes with all the stickers on the floor that advise people to keep apart and make staircases and hallways one-way. (Drainville and McWebb shared a quick masked embrace, nevertheless.)

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You might think a physical place for the study of digital arts was always going to toy with paradox, but the program at the Stratford School that teaches coding and business skills alongside creativity is usually very hands on.

There’s a tech library on campus with a laser cutter and 3-D printer and all sorts of state-of-the-art gadgets that students can borrow to work on courses or independent projects.

To really study gamers gaming, you need to do more than tune into a Twitch stream; at the Stratford School, there’s a gaming lab set up with a one-way mirror so researchers can observe couch potatoes playing Call of Duty while they are hooked up to sensors that monitor perspiration and heart rate.

“Obviously, we’ve done [remote learning] now for over a year and a half, so it can be done, but we feel that the real learning happens on campus,” McWebb says.

“This program it is extremely collaborative and interdisciplinary, so the students actually learn as much from each other as they learn from us now.”

Just as the pandemic has shown that theatre companies can produce digital offerings – see The Stratford Festival’s Stratfest@Home streaming service – it has reminded us that digital businesses and arts can benefit from in-person human contact.

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Technology exists in the real world, after all, and interacts with physical bodies, as Stratford School researchers know. Lennart Nacke, one of its star professors, recently received a $350,000 grant to work on exercise games for geriatric populations, for instance – just one of many projects at the school focused on “gamifying” for social good.

The biggest problem the Stratford School faces is, indeed, about physical space in Stratford. Before the pandemic there were about 120 beds available to the school’s students in the community, and now there’s only about 60, McWebb says. Landlords have sold rental properties to people who have moved out of the Greater Toronto Area in search of affordable houses, or pivoted them towards long-term rentals for professionals.

I started renting a house here in Stratford in July so I could watch the Stratford Festival and the city’s restaurants and shops emerge from the crisis of the pandemic – though the Delta variant has certainly made that seem more tentative than triumphant.

But what I’ve learned is that the cultural and hospitality industries have been adaptive and resilient in face of COVID-19 – and a lack of housing is the longer-term problem for them.

The restaurants and hotels need places where workers can live; the Stratford Festival needs to house artists, and artists of all stripes want to be able to afford property in the town; and who will volunteer if the city becomes a less attractive place to retirees?

Housing seems to be the most urgent problem facing all sectors today in Stratford, as in so many places across Ontario and the country.

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