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Students at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., on Sept. 11, 2020. As COVID-19 cases surge across Canada, some postsecondary classes that had been scheduled as in-person earlier this summer are now instead being offered online.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Postsecondary students are heading back to campuses this week after a year of studying remotely, but many of them are finding much of their course work is still only available online.

Surging case counts driven by the Delta variant have meant that even some classes that had been scheduled as in-person earlier this summer are now instead being offered online by professors who are concerned about safety.

In-person course offerings vary between institutions. Langara College in Vancouver is delivering only 40 per cent of its courses on campus. While at Simon Fraser University, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of classes will be offered in person.

According to numbers provided by the University of British Columbia, the percentage of courses with an online component at the Vancouver campus increased from 10.5 per cent to 10.8 per cent over the month of August. For the Okanagan campus, online offerings increased from 18.7 per cent to 21.2 per cent. The remaining courses will be fully or partially in-person.

At the University of Toronto, only 55 per cent of classes are planning for in-person activity, whereas the percentage of in-person courses in fall 2018 was around 99 per cent, according to Susan McCahan, the university’s vice-provost of academic programs.

University of Calgary has roughly 80 per cent of fall courses on campus, with some instructors including hybrid teaching components. A statement from U of C says 10 per cent of course components (lectures, labs, seminars or tutorials) were shifted to online delivery in August as Delta-variant cases rose across Alberta.

The spread of the Delta variant has prompted provinces to adopt firm vaccination policies in recent weeks. The Ontario government recently announced that universities and colleges must require anyone without a medical excuse to prove they have been vaccinated before coming to campus. Manitoba is requiring teachers to get their second dose of vaccine by Halloween or undergo regular COVID-19 testing on the job, and most major postsecondary institutions are also requiring vaccinations.

But in Alberta and British Columbia, where infection rates are high above the national average, vaccinations are not mandatory to attend postsecondary classes. In British Columbia, students must show proof of vaccine to participate in many other campus activities, but attending classes is deemed essential and therefore, unvaccinated people won’t be barred because of their status. Instead, major Western universities, including UBC and the University of Alberta, are requiring all those coming to campus to undergo regular rapid testing, with exemptions for the fully vaccinated.

While studying online has given some students welcome flexibility, for others learning online has stripped the university experience of the interpersonal interaction and stimulation they signed up for. Student Leila Tjiang, who is majoring in environmental biology and geology at U of T, said she does not mind taking courses remotely.

But Ms. Tjiang, who is also a staff member for University of Toronto Students’ Union, said universities need to offer a balance to students. Some need the flexibility of online learning or may be immunocompromised or may live with a family member who is. Those people need an online option, she noted.

UBC student Eshana Bhangu said she finds it difficult to feel motivated when studying online.

“I much prefer the interactive nature of in-person classes and any formal mentorship opportunities with the instructors that you just don’t get on Zoom,” she said.

As the vice-president of UBC’s student union, Ms. Bhangu said she knows students are excited to return to campus, but worries about COVID-19 are also on their minds.

UBC philosophy professor Jonathan Ichikawa has been polling the 131 students signed up for his second-year philosophy course on whether they feel comfortable attending in-person class.

He said among more than half of those students who have responded, the majority are interested in attending in-person classes.

“They talk about not enjoying online courses; they’re having a harder time learning in that environment. Some mentioned missing the social aspect,” Dr. Ichikawa said.

He added that, among those students, some are concerned about the fact that there’s not a vaccine mandate, nor the ability to socially distance in a classroom. Dr. Ichikawa said after consideration, he switched one of his in-person classes to a hybrid system and some of his colleagues have done similar.

However, in Montreal, professors at McGill University have been told they cannot make the decision to move their courses online.

Michael Hendricks, associate professor of biology at McGill, said a memo from the university’s provost asserts that the administration has the authority to discipline faculty who choose to teach online. Fear about safety or concern about relatives who might be at greater risk for COVID-19 are not valid reasons to teach remotely, the memo said.

Cynthia Lee, a spokesperson for the university, says more than 85 per cent of the teaching activities this fall are partially or fully in-person. Most large lectures will be online with some in-person activities. McGill is not making vaccination mandatory on campus but is implementing a vaccination passport for non-essential activities, as required by the Quebec government.

Dr. Hendricks said in an e-mail that he is healthy, fully vaccinated and does not live with or have close contacts who are immunocompromised, so he prefers to teach on campus. However, he added, that is not the case for some of his colleagues.

“I believe I do have the right to teach online, whether for my own safety or that of a family member,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Doug Ford and health minister Christine Elliott announced on Wednesday that Ontarians will need to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination before entering indoor restaurants, gyms, theatres and meeting halls. The plan comes into effect Sept. 22, at first using existing printed or e-mailed vaccine receipts and photo ID followed by the launch of a smartphone app and QR code expected mid-October.

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