ANTIGONISH: The president of StFX University says with exams now over and students returning home over the holiday break, it was a community effort to have a successful semester at the university in the wake of COVID-19.

Andy Hakin said their student body worked very hard, and for the most part, followed the implemented rules, along with residents, government leaders, and health professionals working to ensure they kept the community safe.

“It’s really through them that we’ve been able to come out of this semester without any cases of COVID in our student population,” Hakin told The Reporter. “It’s a moment where we can take our foot slightly off the gas, but we can’t afford to be too complacent; the community has worked so hard, but now we’re gearing up for the beginning of the winter semester.”

Drawing national attention in June, the university announced their plans to invite and welcome the approximately 4,000 students back to campus for the fall semester, when virtually every other school in the province announced they would be hosting online classes for the fall semester.

With one of the highest percentages of in-person classes in Canada, StFX successfully completed its first semester on Dec. 14 without one reported case of COVID.

Despite open criticism on the university’s decision, StFX welcomed nearly 4,000 students back as they returned to class in September, something that took careful planning with the approval of Nova Scotia’s Health Authority, and resulted in 64 per cent of classes being held face-to-face.

Hakin advised the pandemic issue was evolving throughout the first semester, and it meant that their plans had to constantly be revisited.

“Our students came from an environment in not being able to complete high school in the appropriate manner, and many of them the first time away from home, many of them the first time in a residential facility,” he said. “They come to an environment in which they have to wear masks, outside at the start and in the classroom throughout the whole semester – there were a lot of changes for our students.”

Like all good students, Hakin suggested the university learned quickly, and he thinks they’re better prepared to welcome students back for the winter semester after learning in the first semester they need to be flexible in how they move forward.

“We’ll give ourselves a little moment to reflect, and regather some energy, and we’ll move on again, and get ready for January,” he said. “We, as a community, should feel very proud. The bottom line is this: we proved that when the entire community works together for a common goal, we can achieve anything.”

The university’s president indicated there is an estimated 60 students who will remain on campus over the holiday period, with an approximate 200 additional students remaining in the community and not returning to their homes in other provinces.

“And hats off to them, they’ve made a decision to stay here where it’s safe,” Hakin said. “They’ll be missing their families – and we’ll do our best to support them. It’s a good decision, we support them in that.”

Hakin advised there are many reasons why the term was a success, but attributes much to the behaviour of students during the term, and the planning and collaboration between the university community and the residents of Antigonish.

“We launched the Neighbours Helping Neighbours at the beginning of the fall semester, and in a nutshell, we had 240 community volunteers from all over the Antigonish area, supporting those students, getting groceries for them, being that person on the end of the phone for any worries or concerns,” he said. “That was so successful, and it really showed our students, that this community cares about you, and I’m asking for that program to be reactivated for the winter semester.”

Officials with StFX spent months developing a plan of action, including some innovative ideas, to welcome students, faculty, and staff back to campus in a safe manner.

The university enforced additional restrictions above and beyond public health that included wearing masks outdoors while on campus, and utilized its residences to implement the province’s mandatory 14-day isolation for those students coming from outside of the Atlantic Bubble.

The majority of students have now left for Christmas break and have returned home to their families in areas all across Canada, the United States, and overseas.

“StFX and the surrounding community will be ready once again to welcome them back in January,” Hakin added. “And we will do it all over again – offer an in-person education while keeping everyone’s safety top priority.”