By Dr. Jessica Riddell, Addy Strickland, Sally Cunningham, Corey Ashe, and Lara Hartman
The start of the 2020 academic year has been unlike any other in our collective memory. Institutions across Canada made difficult decisions about the Fall 2020 term in constantly evolving conditions and with incomplete or contradictory information. While the trend in Canadian post-secondary education saw large, urban institutions move courses online for Fall 2020, the four Maple League institutions – Acadia, Bishop’s, Mount Allison, and St. Francis Xavier – were able to welcome some students back to campus due to their unique contexts. The health and safety of the communities was the guiding principle in every decision, and were made in consultation with diverse partners over a sustained period of time and in consideration of a number of complex factors.
The decision to re-open campuses was based on the following conditions:
1. All four institutions are located in rural or regional areas with low population density.
2. These universities all have small class sizes, so physical distancing in classrooms and on campus was logistically possible.
4. All four universities met and exceeded the local and provincial public health guidelines, with mandatory masks on campus, sanitizing stations and cleaning between classes, delayed starts to term, asymptomatic COVID testing, and quarantining.
5. Strong relationships with the “citizen towns” – Antigonish, Lennoxville, Sackville, and Wolfville – ensured that for the most part community members were part of the decisions, design, and implementation of campus re-openings.
Most importantly, a fundamental value shared by the four universities is that students are key partners in the learning process. In a 21st-century liberal education, students are co-creators of knowledge. Students and professors – and all members of the community – learn from one another through candid and respectful dialogue. In the national conversations about Fall 2020, student voices are essential to the decision-making process. Four students from each of the Maple League universities share their perspectives about Fall 2020 and explore the complex and evolving environments within which they are learning and living.
Addy Strickland, Student at St. Francis Xavier University
The return to campus, more than anything, has been an exercise in trust. Stepping back into the classroom means trusting that everyone else has also isolated, has kept to their bubble, has worn a mask. It means trusting that classrooms have been cleaned, tests have been taken, and distancing maintained. It also means trusting institutions that frequently put image and finances over student well-being. That’s a lot to ask six months into a prolonged, collective trauma, when everyone is presumably well-versed in just how dangerous and pervasive this virus can be. It’s a lot to ask, and something that I struggle with often—as I’m sure many others do. That doesn’t mean, however, that opening campus was the wrong decision. At a time when nearly everyone is struggling, community has come to be all the more important. I won’t glorify the university campus as a community in anything more than proximity, but the smaller communities that piece it together are something magical. Since returning to campus, I’ve found solace in weekly meetings with the student paper; in creating content for Social Justice Radio; in running into friends and professors in the halls; in studying near other people. All of these things play just as much of a role in education as classes do, because they make it matter. They make learning real, instead of trapping it on a page or behind a screen. So even though we’re all struggling and burnt out, and trust is hard, and the world is on fire—it’s good to be back.
Sally Cunningham, Student at Bishop’s University
I’m living in Lennoxville again. The world has spun off its axis more than once this year, bringing the now-infamous “unprecedented times” into the light, and forcing new habits, new coping mechanisms, new tragedy every day. I have read signs warning of the coronavirus in English, Dutch, German, and French. Quarantined three times. Spent the summer trying to remember what productivity looks like. Failed a lot. I have learned that looking forward can be dangerous, and I try to not get attached to plans the same way. When I first heard that school was moving online for the foreseeable future, I was inconsolable for days. It was a new robbery: late nights with friends, ordering pizza to the library, knocking snow off my boots onto squeaky vinyl flooring. All gone. Yet, here we are in November, and I am here. Classes are for the most part online—which is a whole new learning curve to deal with alongside academic learning—but there is some sense of normalcy. I look for the little joys that come from being on-campus even in these uncharted waters: we buy happy little plants for the window, I get to meet my professors face-to-six-feet-away-face and talk about nerdy things, we do a mask fashion show in the quad and laugh until it hurts. It may look a little quieter, maybe more fearful, but still tentatively hopeful: I am living in Lennoxville again and I am grateful.
Corey Ashe, Student at Mount Allison University
With all the uncertainty of the Fall 2020 Semester, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the thought that Mount Allison would implement a fully-online semester worried me. I’m the type of student who enjoys the face-to-face interaction with my classmates and my professors. It provides a much better learning experience, when compared to learning behind a computer screen. To my excitement, Mount Allison University announced a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and on-campus courses. This shows the commitment of the university to cater to the needs of all its students, those who could return in a safe manner and those who could learn from home. I have enjoyed my time back on campus thus far. Starting with the quarantine process that Mount Allison had implemented for students entering Atlantic Canada, this was designed to ensure that the risk of spreading COVID-19 remained low and contained. All protocols, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks, restricting all campus buildings to students, faculty and staff, and the installation of hand sanitizer stations across campus, were designed to keep students safe and free of COVID-19. With all these protocols implemented across the Mount Allison University campus, I feel extremely safe and glad that I was able to return to campus in order to pursue my studies in a safe and comfortable manner. I would like to extend my appreciation to all the faculty, students, staff and other members of the Mount Allison Community who continue to work day in and out to ensure that the semester is running as smoothly as possible.
Lara Hartman, Student at Acadia University
After only a month of being back at school I am so thankful that Acadia found a way for people to safely return to campus. It is surely a different type of education experience now but students are resilient and we are finding a way through. By living through this experience we are definitely more appreciative of the educational experiences we had before. I know I am missing the time when I was not on my computer all day long. I miss going into class in-person and seeing people’s faces. Now I find myself going to Teams meetings and getting headaches because of the screen time, and wishing I could see other people. In the Maple League we pride ourselves on the extraordinary type of learning and this year is showing us again that we can handle the extraordinary and come out stronger because of it. COVID-19 is changing the world, but we in the Maple League are going to change the world no matter what obstacles stand in the way, even a global pandemic. As this school year continues we will see what other new opportunities present themselves because of it.
We are all living and learning in the midst of a global pandemic. Universities must be on the forefront of the recovery and renewal efforts, taking charge towards a post-COVID world that is more inclusive, equitable, and just, than it was before the global shutdown. A student-centred approach strengthens our role as leaders in quality undergraduate education in Canada. Students are key partners who help us imagine and achieve hopeful and resilient institutions post-COVID. In a world with accelerated news cycles, competing information, and socio-political uncertainty, students are the moral compasses of our institutions.
As we prepare for Winter 2021, the four universities are hosting town halls, convening focus groups, and surveying faculty and students. In these discussions across the Maple League we are trying to hold space for the messiness of this journey and make visible the tremendous challenges while also sharing what we’ve learned so that we may get through and learn together.