StFX swims against the global pandemic current

StFX University issued a surprising decision recently by announcing it will welcome students back to campus in September.

Even though every other post-secondary institution across Nova Scotia has announced they are moving to on-line learning for the fall semester, StFX says it will be offering a mixed-method course delivery, which will begin on September 14, with most classes taking place in-person and “some classes” offered on-line.

Interim president Kevin Wamsley explained this decision was endorsed by the StFX Senate and was arrived after “much careful planning and deliberation,” that fully considered the safety and well-being of students, staff, and faculty, as well as local residents.

According to the university, their plans were presented to provincial public health authorities for review. This included protocols related to physical spaces, logistics, and movement on campus to ensure social distancing, as well as new cleaning and disinfecting standards.

To ensure collective health and safety are preserved, Wamsley said the university will be issuing new behavioural expectations of the StFX community.

When asked why StFX is having in-person courses when so many other universities have elected to hold their fall terms on-line, the university says it is in a rural location that’s removed from bigger urban centres, and has a smaller student population as compared to many larger universities.

As per public health guidelines, all domestic students, living on or off-campus, who are coming from outside Nova Scotia will be required to self-isolate for 14-days.

Students planning to live in residence and travelling from out-of-province will be contacted in July by university housing to schedule their arrival time on August 30 or 31, two weeks before the official beginning of the fall term.

StFX noted that on campus students who are self-isolating will be supported with meal delivery, laundry service, and other assistance.

Students planning to live in residence and not requiring self-isolation will be contacted in July to schedule their arrival date between September 10 and 13.

Enhanced cleaning, screening, and safety protocols for residences will include the elimination of double bedrooms, safety restrictions for residence washrooms that are shared and/or semi-private, and reduced access to student common areas

Off-campus students travelling from outside the province must make arrangements to arrive in Antigonish so that their self-isolation period will end by the start of classes on September 14.

Off-campus students will have to submit self-isolation plans to StFX, including details on when they are arriving in Antigonish and where they will complete their self-isolation. Off-campus students will also be required to submit a health and travel declaration form to student life prior to arriving to Antigonish and will be required to check in at a designated, central location.

Ensuring safety in high traffic area like meal hall, StFX will be eliminating buffet and self-service options to reduce contact touch points, reducing their meal hall capacity to ensure there are never too many people in the building at one time, and re-arranging their seating to ensure physical distancing requirements are met.

Wamsley said only those students who adhere to health and safety protocols will have access to the campus.

An information page of the university’s Web site indicated students may elect not to return to campus and complete some courses on-line, however, as a limited number of courses will be offered on-line, it may not be possible for students to fulfill their program requirements in a timely manner.

Decisions on which courses will be offered in-person and which on-line will be made on July 9 before the course timetable is published.

Physical distancing will be enforced in classrooms, residences, and student service areas like meal hall, and non-medical masks will be required.

The university warned failure to follow the health and safety guidelines will be a serious violation of the community code and may even result in expulsion from the university.

When asked whether the decision to bring students back to campus poses a risk to the community and the local health care system, the university suggested students are integral to the social, cultural, and economic fabric of the Antigonish area.

Just as important to the community is the NSCC Strait Area Campus which announced there will be no fully on-campus programs for the 2020-21 academic year.

NSCC programs will be offered either on-line or through a blended format with on-line and on-campus classes. The college’s revised program plan allows the delivery of 130-plus programs in ways that follow public health guidelines.

NSCC President Don Bureaux said the health and safety of students, employees and the broader community are of paramount importance.

Campuses will open with significant modifications and all on-campus activities will meet public health guidelines, such as physical distancing and limitations on gatherings.

To reflect the changes to program delivery, the NSCC will help students access to technology to support their learning.

Even though many of the programs at the Strait Area Campus require hands-on instruction and learning – much more so than StFX – the NSCC still limited the amount of in-class sessions this fall.

Meanwhile, StFX did not follow the lead of other universities in the province and across the country, and is instead continuing with plans to offer in-person classes by mid-September.

StFX officials are relying on the facts that the university is located in a rural part of a small province and is a small school which will make it less susceptible to infection, but there are still good changes that transmission could take place and people could get sick unnecessarily, especially with students returning from around the globe and public health officials opening up the province.

As it stands, Nova Scotia has gone weeks without new cases, the spread has been contained, and public health restrictions have been lifted.

But what StFX is proposing exceeds Nova Scotia’s slow open, and in their speed, some things have been left out.

StFX has provided too few on-line alternatives for students, which will force more students on-campus and in the community. The university’s failure to provide options for students must be addressed before courses are made available.

And in that spirit, perhaps StFX should review their entire re-opening plan before the summer progresses, especially if the virus makes a return.

Public health is not something to be risked.