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Wilfrid Laurier University student Kieran Sagar is in the communications management and social entrepreneurship program.Jenna Marie Wakani/the globe and mail

As September approaches, Canada’s postsecondary students have a tough decision to make: return to school and on- or off-campus housing, or continue to learn virtually at home.

When the pandemic hit in March, 2020, university and college students across the country went from in-class to virtual learning almost overnight. That left a number of students feeling isolated in their dorm rooms or sequestered with their friends in rented off-campus housing. Many chose to return to the comforts of home during this stressful time.

But as September approaches, the question is, how many postsecondary students will return to on-campus learning and housing?

The answer varies.

Wilfrid Laurier University student Kieran Sagar, who is in the communications management and social entrepreneurship program, has an apartment in Waterloo but has been staying with her parents in Burlington, Ont., during the pandemic. Ms. Sagar signed her lease before the pandemic hit and felt stuck when everything closed down.

She planned to live with two roommates, but one backed out last minute due to concerns over COVID-19, and the other stayed for just two months before moving home.

“I find it hard to stay up in my apartment in Waterloo due to the isolation. I don’t have access to a car, and with the campus being closed, very often, there were days in the winter where I didn’t leave my place,” says Ms. Sagar.

This was the norm for many of Ms. Sagar’s classmates.

“With campus learning, sports and clubs all being done remotely, the idea of staying in a small student residence isn’t as appealing as it once was,” she says. “A few of my friends took a year off, others moved into the residence at the peak of the pandemic, then moved home mid-year.”

Even so, Ms. Sagar’s brother, who is heading into his first year of university this fall, decided to move into a student dorm. For many, a big part of the university or college experience is staying on campus, making new friends, and having new experiences away from home. Still, worries of being confined to a dorm room are daunting for students as they look to September with talk of a fourth wave swirling.

Each student is charting their own path, with some planning to spend part of the week at school when they have labs and part of the week at home when they can do classes virtually.

Others have decided to postpone their university education. That’s what Emily Russell, who was accepted to the University of British Columbia’s Bachelor of Media Studies program, has decided.

“While I was thrilled to be accepted to what I would call my ‘dream school,’ it was tainted by the promise of a COVID education – online courses, severely limited socialization, and generally a lack of face-to-face interaction,” Ms. Russell says.

“The pandemic certainly made it easier for me to justify taking a year off, and instead of moving into a dorm this September, I’m flying abroad and working on a horse farm near Paris,” she says. “I think everybody can benefit from taking a step back from the predetermined path.”

However, many students are returning to residence and in-person classes, says Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC. The school’s 12,500 residence beds will be occupied this fall, he adds.

“I don’t think that it was a surprise to anyone at UBC that the demand [for residence] has returned to pre-pandemic levels,” he says, “as Vancouver is a very challenging place to rent.”

Some residence suites, as well as hotel rooms, will be set aside as quarantine quarters for international students who need to isolate upon arrival, Mr. Ramsey says. They are also helping students set up vaccination appointments if they haven’t gotten the shot already, he adds.

For some postsecondary schools, proof of vaccination status is not mandatory. However, there is a growing list of schools across the country that are requiring students be vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

U of T has seen an increased interest from first-year students who want to live in residence this year.

In addition to on-campus residences, U of T is “offering first-year students accommodation at a nearby hotel. Provincial health regulations continue to guide our work and will determine the total number of spaces in residences,” says Prof. Sandy Welsh, vice-provost of students at the University of Toronto.

This hotel student accommodation will be staffed by U of T residence staff and will aim to replicate the student residence experience on campus, says Ms. Welsh. It will include common rooms that adhere to all public health guidelines as well as offering regular supports and programming for students.

Meanwhile, more than 1,200 students attended the university’s off-campus virtual tour earlier this summer, says Ms. Welsh. The university also recently launched six eLearning modules to help guide students through the process of finding rental accommodation, she adds.

Allen Chin, a principal broker at Guardian Mortgages in Toronto, helps clients buy properties that are then leased to students. He says more students are looking for options besides school dorms.

Of those who are not staying home, “more students are opting for off-campus living,” he says, including apartments or single-family homes.

For international students, Mr. Chin notes, they often don’t have the luxury of going back home to their parents because it’s a long flight instead of a car ride away. In these cases, off-campus housing options are a preferred alternative.

As for Ms. Sagar, she will be returning to her Waterloo apartment for her third year at Wilfrid Laurier.

She says more of her classes are on-campus versus online this fall, and she doesn’t want to miss out on the experiential learning. Ms. Sagar also doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to develop the life skills you learn while living independently.

“Although it is often difficult to live in student housing under lockdowns and other COVID-related restrictions, going back will aid me in my studies and personal growth.”