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This year, Karen Farag decorated her Christmas tree earlier than usual. It makes the house she shares with her two brothers in Sherbrooke feel a bit more like home.

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Karen Farag, a second-year medical student at the University of Sherbrooke, normally visits her parents in Summerside, PEI, for Christmas.handout

In a normal December, Ms. Farag, a second-year medical student at the University of Sherbrooke, would be preparing to visit her parents in her hometown of Summerside, PEI, for a few days, before the family heads to the Caribbean for its annual Christmas vacation. Instead, the 20-year-old is bracing herself to spend the holidays apart from her mother and father for the first time.

“Anytime I call mom, she starts crying, saying ‘Oh I miss you so much. I want you to come home,’ but I know they understand,” said Ms. Farag, who has not seen her mother since July and her father since March.

Scores of university and college students who are studying away from home are facing the same prospect as Ms. Farag as COVID-19′s second wave batters much of the country, prompting political leaders and public-health officials to recommend that Canadians not travel for the holidays.

Is my city going back into lockdown? A guide to COVID-19 restrictions across Canada

Additional restrictions on travellers to Atlantic Canada make going home for the holidays less palatable. Visitors – even from within Canada – are required to isolate for 14 days to help prevent the virus’s spread in a region that has been a relative haven from COVID-19. Ms. Farag would barely finish her quarantine before she’d have to return to school. That mandatory self-isolation is a factor making many students decide not to unite with their families this holiday season.

“I really don’t feel like [PEI] should take any risks,” said Ms. Farag, who attends school in a COVID-19 hotspot. “Compared to where I am – we’re in zone red and can’t leave the house – they are in a really good spot.”

In early November, it seemed possible that self-isolation rules in Atlantic Canada would be loosened by the time students started their holidays. Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang had said that his province was considering employing rapid testing at its border with New Brunswick for travellers from outside the Atlantic region, so as to shorten the mandatory quarantine.

When will Canadians get COVID-19 vaccines? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

But since then, national infection rates have skyrocketed and cases began increasing in Atlantic Canada at rates unseen since the spring, prompting each Eastern province to implement tighter public-health guidelines. The Atlantic bubble – which had allowed residents to travel inside the four Atlantic provinces without having to self-isolate – was lifted with little warning.

For Niki Triantafillou, a respiratory-therapy student at Thompson Rivers University in B.C. who is originally from Charlottetown, it’s not just the mandatory quarantine and limits on socialization that are making her hesitant to return home. She does not want to risk contracting COVID-19 while travelling – doing so could get her shunned by other Island residents.

“Especially on PEI,” she said. “If they said a 23-year-old from Kamloops has COVID-19, people will know it’s you.”

It’s not an unfounded concern. PEI’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said in a press conference recently that the name of a Charlottetown high school student who tested positive for COVID-19 was leaked on social media. PEI Premier Dennis King condemned the public shaming of the student that followed and reminded Islanders that “our first response to hearing this should be making sure that he is well and getting better.”

Ms. Triantafillou will forgo her classic Christmas Day mimosas and brunch with her family and instead spend the holidays in Kamloops with her partner.

For Jack Wierzbicki, a first-year student at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., the pandemic is also forcing him to stay put and spend the winter break away from his family in Whitby, Ont. Otherwise, he’d have to isolate inside his university residence in January, like he did in September.

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At Christmas last year, Jack Wierzbicki signed his letter of intent, with his family by his side, to attend St. Francis Xavier University. This year, he'll spend the holidays in his residence.handout

“My mom isn’t too happy with me right now,” he said. “But as much as I want to go home, if I can stay here and not quarantine again, I’d much rather do that.”

At St. Francis Xavier, approximately 50 students will do the same thing as Mr. Wierzbicki and stay in residence for the holidays to avoid self-isolation in January. At the University of New Brunswick, it’s roughly 70. The University of Prince Edward Island is expecting 86 students – 30 per cent of its current residence occupancy – to stay in residence throughout December.

Elizabeth Yeo, the head of student services at St. Francis Xavier, said that the university partnered with the community to create Neighbours Helping Neighbours, a program through which alumni, staff and faculty members volunteer to “offer meal deliveries, groceries and friendly phone calls to students for the holidays.”

Ms. Yeo said that the university is currently consulting with students about what physically distanced activities they would like to see available during the break.

“We’re listening to them about how they’d like to spend the holidays,” she said. “Being away from family is tough. … For those who are away, we still want to make it special.”

The first COVID-19 vaccine injections in Canada were administered in Toronto and Quebec City within half an hour of each other on Monday. Personal support worker Anita Quidangen was the first in Ontario to get the shot.

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