NSCC, StFX preparing for return of students

ANTIGONISH: With other post-secondary institutions across the province already announcing their decision to fully transition to on-line learning for the upcoming fall semester, StFX University is preparing for students to be back on campus and classes to resume as normal come September.

The university’s manager of media relations, Cindy MacKenzie told The Reporter in an e-mailed statement on May 22, StFX is continuing to monitor updates and follow the directions from public health.

“As of today, we are preparing for classes in September, in-person and on campus,” she indicated. “However, in the event that in-person classes are not possible, contingency planning has begun in parallel to bridge the gap if necessary until the campus reopens.”

Regardless of the situation, she said StFX is committed to ensuring students start on time in the fall.

As for answers to The Reporter’s questions on what campus life will look like; what students should expect when arriving to campus; what this means for residences, classes, meal hall, and student’s social life; or even how the university plans to adhere to physical distancing protocols – StFX declined to comment any further.

“At this time, there is nothing further to add to the information we have provided,” MacKenzie said.

In keeping the university faculty and staff informed, interim-president and vice chancellor, Kevin Wamsley, issued an update to his colleagues May 23, that noted an on-line preparedness task force has begun working with faculty members and they have also started to take steps to communicate regularly with their new and returning students and their parents.

“We are all hoping that conditions will continue to improve over the weeks ahead to the point where we can confidently welcome back faculty, staff, and students in the fall,” Wamsley said. “While conditions are improving, we must remain cautious and be prepared for the exercising of various scenarios of both course delivery and day-to-day life on campus.”

If StFX is able to welcome students back to campus, it will be under very specific and strict conditions, and in the event they are unable to invite students back to campus in the fall, Wamsley suggested they will be prepared to deliver academic programs on-line as a result of the efforts of the task force and faculty.

Officials with the university realize the decision to open campus to students must be made within “the next few weeks” and the decision is being made with extreme care, with concern over the health of students, faculty and staff at the forefront.

With those factors in mind, Wamsley said they are drafting a plan for a return to campus, and the COVID steering committee has started to document the steps and procedures that will allow an increasing number of employees to return to campus in a phased and controlled manner over the months ahead.

The plan will include details such as criteria relating to who may apply to return to campus, strict rules and codes of conduct related to health and safety protocols, as well as timelines.

“We recognize that the situation is fluid and we must be nimble in response,” Wamsley said. “It is with that in mind that I ask our community to continue to express patience and understanding.”

The Mayor of the Town of Antigonish suggests university towns like hers will significantly feel the impact of not having students on campus and in return, throughout their communities.

“It doesn’t matter what StFX chooses, it’s still going to have a big effect on our town,” Laurie Boucher said. “When approximately 5,000 students come to town, it really boosts our economy; these students eat at our restaurants, they shop at our stores, all of their social habits directly affect our economy.”

Approximately 50 per cent of StFX’s 5,361 students, including 90 per cent of all first-year students live on-campus in residences but could find themselves studying from their own homes come September.

Looking at the other side of it, Boucher indicated if COVID has a higher rate in Ontario, Alberta, or Quebec and students return to the town, what are the chances this might put added stress on their hospital.

“Either side of the coin, it will have a big effect with our town,” she said.

Boucher’s counterpart across the causeway told The Reporter she is always excited to personally welcome their NSCC and Nautical Institute students to the Town of Port Hawkesbury.

“It does certainly add a boost to our population and it’s also beneficial because Nova Scotia Community College students are renting in town, supporting our local business and contributing in other ways as well,” Brenda Chisholm-Beaton said. “For example, former graduate Chad Kelly launched a compost/green bin study for both his course and the town.”

She said should NSCC decide to hold their fall semester on-line, it would certainly be a decision for the best safety of staff and students and a plan for business continuity.

“As mayor, I would certainly understand such a decision were it to be made,” Chisholm-Beaton said. “We would certainly miss the value of having our students here in person; and our town would look forward to when our student population could safely resume their studies in-person.”

NSCC President, Don Bureaux suggested the community college is finalizing a plan for review by public health authorities that requires pre-approval by the Chief Medical Officer of Health before reopening.

“We need this confirmation in order for our campuses, learning centres and business offices to develop plans tailored to their individual working and learning environments,” Bureaux said. “We will share information as soon as it becomes available about when and how our community can safely access our spaces.”

The community college is finalizing their program delivery plans for the 2020-21 academic year and will have more to share on this in the next 10-days.

Bureaux suggests NSCC will play an important role in the province’s social and economic recovery from COVID-19. Along with plans to reopen, the provincial government announced $230 million infrastructure program that will create 2,000 jobs and help stimulate the economy.

“As our economy recovers and as we continue as a community to fight this virus, employers will be looking for the skills our grads learn here, at NSCC,” he said. “To ensure we are all able to continue to support flattening the curve and the eventual recovery of our economy, we need to take care of ourselves and each other.”