First-year Western students say the plan to return to campus is unreasonable

First-year students at Western University are appalled by the school’s decision to let the seniors return to personal learning before them.

While Western senior students will be allowed to return to campus in two weeks, first-year students will continue with distance learning until February 28th. This will not be the case at other universities, including Dalhousie, McGill, Waterloo, Concordia, York, the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, all of which plan for their students to return to personal classes at the same time.

This was an unwelcome surprise for Western freshman Chloe Vanderlugt and her peers. On Friday, she joined more than 2,400 signatories of a petition to reverse the school’s decision, saying staying away from campus will harm freshmen’s mental health.

In addition to having to continue learning online, students will also not be allowed to live in university housing until the end of February. At other universities, housing is either open or will reopen when the personal school returns, either in late January or early February, depending on the school.

“There are a lot of angry freshmen,” Vanderlugt said. “Although we were aware that the school could go online at any given time, we were not aware that we too would be taken from us.”

For Vanderlugt, residence is the key to comfort and success in school. It provides access to campus facilities such as libraries and study rooms for students who would otherwise live too far away to use them.

“We feel that this decision is unfairly directed at first-year students,” she said. “We are especially sad because when we look at other universities, they allow students to live in housing. It is difficult to see that we are the only ones in this situation.”

The fact that most first-year students live in the residence is precisely the reason why Western decided to keep them off campus.

The homes have “shared rooms and restrooms that increase the risk of (COVID) transmission,” a Western spokesman told Star, and “will not meet the requirements for self-insulation if a significant number of students are required to insulate.”

In a statement, John Doerksen, Western’s acting provost and vice president of academics, said the school is aware that there are “divided opinions about this approach based on personal circumstances.” But, he said, it’s the “best way to ensure we’ll be able to complete the rest of the winter period with personalized learning on campus.”

Western’s University Students’ Council (USC), a student-led organization, said it finds the school’s incremental return plan worrying and has met with the university to share student feedback.

“While USC recognizes the security issues in housing, we believe this poses an additional disruption to first-year students, which will affect their students’ experience differently than senior year students,” said USC spokeswoman Callista Ryan.

The students are all vaccinated.

Epidemiologist Colin Furness’s view is that the benefit of reducing transmission outweighs the potential negative impact the plan may have on first-year students.

“I can see how this would be perceived as a disturbance,” Furness said. “At the same time, university housing – like any assembly facility – is just not safe at the height of a highly contagious wave of a dangerous virus. We hope Omicron does not cause significant brain tissue loss like previous variants, but we do not yet know. It makes sense to be careful, and it may reduce future responsibilities on the part of the institution.

“If people understood the safety issues, they may feel less angry. This is the way of flight delays – harder to grumble when the reason for the delay is to ensure safety.”

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn


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