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Students walk across campus at Western University in London, Ont., Sept. 19, 2020.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Postsecondary institutions across Canada are asking their students to take extra precautions to ensure they don’t bring the coronavirus to campus with them when they flood back following the winter break.

In Ontario, Queen’s University recently issued a statement saying the school is “strongly urging all students” from outside Kingston to remain at home until the province’s current COVID-19 lockdown ends on Jan. 23.

“This includes students living both on and off campus and international students who were scheduled to travel to Kingston for the start of the winter academic term,” the Dec. 23 statement said.

Universities and colleges pivoted to online learning after the pandemic touched down in Canada last spring, but some students still live on campus and many schools still offer in-class learning when absolutely necessary, such as for health care courses with clinical components or lab work for chemistry students.

London’s University of Western Ontario, which made headlines with an outbreak at the start of the fall semester, is asking students living in its residences to postpone returning to their dorms until some time in February. When they do, cafeterias will only be open for takeout, and common areas such as study halls, lounges and gyms will be closed, according to a Dec. 22 update from university executives that ended with “As long as it is safe to do so, we are ready to welcome you back.”

In Halifax, Dalhousie University is ordering any students returning from outside Atlantic Canada to self-isolate for 14 days and is asking them to get a COVID-19 test on the sixth, seventh or eighth day back.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said universities such as Queen’s could help stem a post-Christmas bump in cases by asking students to delay their return by a few weeks. He said normal campus life poses a great risk of transmission because thousands of young people from different communities could be interacting on a daily basis.

“A university is a gigantic economic driver,” Dr. Furness said. “Of course it’s also a giant petri dish because it’s also where you have populations mixing.”

The Kingston region almost entirely avoided the first wave of the pandemic, Dr. Furness said, and slowing people from returning to the city from hard-hit areas could defer the transmission of the virus.

To date, Queen’s has reported 80 cases linked to its community since the summer, 71 of them living off campus. On New Year’s Eve, Kingston’s public-health unit reported five new cases, but across Ontario authorities reported 3,328 new COVID-19 cases – a daily record – and 56 deaths linked to the virus.

Blake Zarubiak, a fifth-year Queen’s health sciences student, said he didn’t know when he might travel from his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont., back to the Kingston house he rents with five other students from Ontario and Nova Scotia. The earliest he may return is Feb. 1. A main reason, he said, is that as a varsity football player hoping to be drafted into the CFL, the gym he has built in a friend’s garage is better than heading back to Queen’s and being shut out of training facilities.

“In terms of me trying to accomplish my goals, it makes more sense to stay here,” said Mr. Zarubiak, who is also chasing Academic All-Canadian honours.

Michaela Basciano will finish out her final year of a psychology degree at the University of British Columbia from her bedroom in her family’s Hamilton home, despite continuing to pay rent for an on-campus residence she left last March when the pandemic hit the West Coast.

“It’s extremely difficult, especially if you’re extroverted like I am,” she said of this academic year.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect Western moving the return of students to residences from Jan. 16 into February.

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