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The University of Alberta is among Canadian schools with the longest planned periods of online learning.CODIE MCLACHLAN/The Canadian Press

A majority of Canada’s research universities have pushed classes online until the end of January or even later in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, leaving some campuses divided over how and when to reopen.

Most of the U15 group of research universities have announced that classes will not resume in person before Monday, Jan. 31, with four of those opting to remain online until the end of February and others bringing students back in stages.

For students frustrated by almost two years of on again, off again pandemic restrictions, these decisions have been difficult. While some have called for a return to normal on campus, others are concerned about the health implications of gathering in classes, even with vaccine and mask mandates at most schools.

A survey of almost 1,000 students at the University of Alberta conducted by the student union in early January found a range of views on reopening the campus.

Roughly 15 per cent of respondents said they wanted to return to in-person classes straight away in early January. Twenty-six per cent said they wanted to return by Jan. 24, and 35 per cent said they’d prefer any time from late January to late February. Twenty-four per cent said they would not be comfortable returning to campus at all this semester.

Rowan Ley, president of the Alberta student union, said students are clearly divided on the issue. He said the student union has been conducting opinion surveys regularly throughout the pandemic. He has shared that data with the university administration but doesn’t know if it factored into the decision to keep classes primarily online.

“I think this is a public-health decision. Public opinion should be a factor, but public-health experts should make the call,” Mr. Ley said.

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Another recent survey of the school’s students found that roughly 10 per cent had tested positive for COVID-19, and one in five of those who got sick reported serious symptoms. Those who reported contracting COVID-19 or having a close friend or relative hospitalized with the disease were much more likely to say they preferred classes remain online for the entire semester.

The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary are among the schools with the longest planned periods of online learning. The University of Manitoba and Queen’s University in Kingston also intend to remain primarily online until the end of February.

Montreal’s McGill University has planned for the quickest return to campus, with most classes resuming in person by Jan. 24.

Some McGill professors have been vocal about their reluctance to resume teaching in person with COVID-19 case counts so high. The university has not made vaccination mandatory and has many older buildings with poor ventilation.

McGill’s Students’ Society called the university’s decision “reckless.”

“Simply put, instructors are our last hope for a safer semester. As such, we are asking instructors to please do everything that you can to make classes accessible to students remotely. Please don’t require in-person attendance or in-person participation,” the student union said in a statement.

In a note to staff and students Wednesday, deputy provost Fabrice Lebeau said McGill had found no evidence through the fall semester, when 85 per cent of classes were in-person, that anyone had contracted COVID-19 in a classroom setting. The few cases of transmission on campus were connected to close contact without masks, the note said.

Mary Ellen Oxby, a master’s of social work student at McGill, said she’s worried her university is returning to in-person instruction too early, particularly since she and many classmates work with vulnerable populations. The social work student association voted overwhelmingly this week for a strike and asked members not to attend in-person lectures before Feb. 25.

“In normal circumstances, I do prefer in-person,” Ms. Oxby said. “Given the hospital situation in Quebec, it does feel early to be making these executive decisions to have students back in classrooms.”

Universities in Ontario have been told by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities that there are no restrictions on in-person instruction, according to an e-mail to staff from the University of Toronto’s provost.

U of T announced Wednesday that it will expand in-person teaching on its three campuses starting Feb. 7, later than originally planned. The e-mail to staff noted that students have told administrators that being on campus and in classrooms is important “both for their academic work and their mental well-being.”

McMaster University in Hamilton will bring back first-year and graduate students beginning Jan. 31, while everyone else will return a week later. Western University in London, Ont., will bring back upper-year students first, on Jan. 31, while first-year students (most of whom live in residence and may pose a greater risk of spreading the disease) won’t return until Feb. 28.

Queen’s is also staying mainly online until Feb. 28 and is offering rebates to students who rented rooms in residence but are staying home during this period. The partial reimbursements amount to $340 a week.

The University of British Columbia moved classes online as the pandemic worsened over the holidays but plans to resume in-person classes starting Monday, Feb. 7.

Iktome Cardinal, a first-year student in kinesiology at UBC, said he looks forward to classes resuming in-person despite the risks. Mr. Cardinal has an autoimmune disorder but assumes he will eventually contract COVID-19.

“I’ve known so many people that have gotten Omicron that it’s more about when I’ll get it than if I’ll get it,” he said.

Last term, half his classes were in-person and the other half were online, but he still enjoyed being able to walk across campus, sit in the lecture halls and study with friends.

“It’s easier to stay focused in a classroom setting,” he said. “That’s just the way I learn best.”

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