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A runner goes around the football field at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB on May 29, 2020.

The Globe and Mail

Forget orientation rallies, house parties or other frosh week events you may associate with the start of the university calendar. For hundreds of out-of-province students arriving at universities across Atlantic Canada, the beginning of this fall semester will be a solitary experience.

At schools such as Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where 40 per cent of students come from outside Atlantic Canada, students began quarantining on campus last Friday, unable to leave their dorm rooms except for trips to the bathroom or for supervised outdoor time, until a 14-day isolation period is over.

School officials are following public-health guidelines in the COVID-19 era before students from the Atlantic provinces – already inside the “Atlantic bubble” and not subject to self-isolation requirements – arrive at the end of the month. In the meantime, the quarantined students will have meals delivered directly to their doors and have to get to know their classmates through virtual gatherings.

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“We’re trying to keep those two groups as separate as possible, until it’s safe to lift those restrictions,” said Adam Christie, Mount Allison’s director of student life and international services. “I think students understand that we need to do things differently this year.”

Mount Allison students pump about $70-million into Sackville‘s economy annually, a significant boost in a community of 4,300 where the municipal budget is only about $10-million. Like other small, East Coast college towns whose populations nearly double as students return, the university is the largest local employer and the community’s biggest economic influence.

Just a few months ago, many here worried students wouldn’t return in the fall at all. While admissions officials at universities around the region don’t yet have reliable figures, they expect overall enrolment will dip slightly, but report larger decreases in the number of students attending in person, as many opt to take courses remotely, or can’t get into the country at all.

In Sackville, as well as in other university towns – Wolfville, N.S. (Acadia University) and Antigonish, N.S. (St. Francis Xavier University) – where there have been few cases of COVID-19, there’s also some anxiety as students return for classes, some of them coming from places still struggling with outbreaks.

“How is everyone going to make sure that people off campus will self-isolate?” asked Sackville’s Nicole Lavigne, who works in a local nursing home and worries about her elderly father.

These universities, which have built their reputations around small classes and personal connections, are trying to reassure their neighbours they can operate safely in a pandemic, and say they’re prepared in the event an outbreak happens. At Acadia University, they’re spacing out class schedules to allow for more cleaning and have installed a tap-card system outside each building on campus to help with contact tracing.

Mount Allison, among others, brought in new code of conduct rules that can penalize students if they ignore public-health requirements, and it has tried to sell students on the idea of remaining inside a “Sackville bubble.” Even the school’s annual corn boil to welcome students has been reduced to a tightly scheduled event where corn is handed out to a maximum of 15 people at a time, in 15-minute increments.

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On campus, all rooms have been converted into single occupancy, reducing the number of students in residence, while student unions have been figuring out ways to get food and medicine to those self-quarantining off-campus. Classes sizes have been cut in half to allow for physical distancing.

St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., went a step further, requiring students to sign a waiver absolving the school of any legal responsibility should they contract COVID-19 while attending classes or activities.

“I think everybody is a little anxious to see how this is going to play out,” said Sarah Elliott, president of the StFX Students’ Union. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure people still have that community feeling, that we’re still in this together, and we’re still going to be okay together.”

The good news for these small, East Coast universities is they’re not expecting a dramatic drop in enrolment that many predicted a few months ago, although plenty of students will take classes online and avoid campus entirely. For some, the desire to attend university away from home remains strong.

“We’ll see a small drop in numbers, but nothing like what we worried about in the spring,” said Scott Duguay, vice-provost, students, recruitment and enrolment management at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “If a student has chosen their university, their heart is set on it, and they want to get on with their lives because it doesn’t look like we’ll be free of COVID any time soon.”

Sackville Mayor John Higham said the return of students is a relief for the many restaurants, shops and landlords in his town who depend on them. He acknowledged some of his residents aren’t thrilled students are returning, but said the university, businesses and the municipality have worked hard to make the fall semester as safe as possible.

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“There are clearly some who are going to feel more anxiety about introducing these folks into what’s been a pretty successful summer so far keeping COVID at bay. We realize we won’t get everybody comfortable,” he said.

“We’re trying to get people to realize everybody they see around our small town is doing the best they can to minimize health risks.”

The universities don’t have the ability yet to test students themselves for COVID-19. That’s why the two-week self-isolation requirement to enter Atlantic Canada, while admittedly challenging for the students forced to quarantine, is seen as the best tool they have to prevent any outbreaks.

Jonathan Ferguson, president of the Mount Allison Students’ Union, said he hopes that and other precautions will help prevent students coming from outside the region from being seen as carriers of disease. They want students, no matter where they’re from, to feel welcome.

“That’s a great safeguard as students come in. If they have the virus, we’re going to find out about it,” he said. “We just don’t want residents to look at students and think, ‘Oh no, they might have COVID.’ We don’t want xenophobia to be a thing that happens here.”

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