by Abby Adair

In the fall of 2021, nearly 18 months after the start of a life-altering global pandemic (words you’re probably tired of reading by now), Carleton University students once again found themselves headed into an unprecedented semester. 

September 6, 2021 marked the start of the first term in the new academic year and the beginning of a slow and gradual return to campus for academic and social activities. After over a year of commuting to class and interacting with peers through a screen, students would now be able to sprinkle excursions to campus for select in-person classes throughout their pre-existing virtual schedules. The semester looked like the first steps forward into a post-COVID-19 world, mediated by restrictions that would present both foreign and familiar sets of obstacles for new and returning students alike. 

 Now in their second year of pandemic education, Carleton students were no longer novices at navigating its various obstacles. But that doesn’t mean it’s made their decisions or their semester easy.

Carleton first announced its plans for a gradual return to campus for its fall 2021 semester in March. An email to students stated that the administration anticipated being able to offer “a significant portion of smaller classes, labs and tutorials in person or in a blended format.”  This would give students the flexibility to choose whether to continue attending university from just about anywhere of their choosing, or to return to the campus for the dream of the lecture hall experience. 

Fall on the Carleton University campus. (Photo: Abby Adair)

This flexibility in course selection foreshadowed the unruly juggling act Carleton would commit itself to, balancing the interests of online students, in-person students, online professors, in-person professors, international students, public health agencies, and of course, interests of their own. This resulted in a  chaotic jumble of scheduling, plans, and regulations, with none other than Carleton students to blaze a trail through the resulting disorder. Amidst the disarray, one thing was certain: this term would again look like none other that came before, and university students would continue to find their lives riddled with anomalous challenges.

What a campus under restrictions looks like

To facilitate the return to on-campus activities, Carleton instituted an assortment of measures for students to integrate into their routines. In addition to mask and vaccination requirements, their primary tool has been their online screening system, CuScreen. The screening system requires that students complete a daily symptom questionnaire before gaining entry to buildings on campus. Students must also log in to the system to scan a QR Code at the entry to each building, and in various places inside, to document their location as they go about their days.  

CuScreen signage outside of Azrieli Theatre at Carleton.
(Photo: Abby Adair)

This, coupled with ample signage dictating where and how many students could sit in a given area, ensured lecture halls this term would fall somewhere within the uncanny valley, just short of normality. Whether chasing the benefits of in-person instruction or fleeing from the notoriously mind-numbing “zoom lecture,” however, students flocked to Ottawa to make their return.

Now in their second year of pandemic education, Carleton students were no longer novices at navigating its various obstacles. But that doesn’t mean it’s made their decisions or their semester easy. Carleton University has regularly boasted about its pandemic response plan and success, and even earned praise earlier in the year from one outside expert on TVO. Yet both the social and academic lives of students still seem largely out of balance — whether that’s due to the unshakeable reputation the youth has garnered for shrugging off Covid restrictions, or a lingering sentiment of academic distress on campus, wherever you go. 

For this article, The Leveller spoke to Carleton students themselves, to look beyond the pronouncements of university administration, and uncover how the Fall 2021 semester was really going.

Speaking to students

First-year student Ben Wignall (Bachelor of Arts in English) didn’t have much previous experience to compare with his first semester. “The thing with starting university in a pandemic,” he said, “is that I don’t know any different, so this is just what university is like to me.” 

When asked about his decision to move to Carleton residence for the year, his answer similarly reflected an acceptance of the current pandemic status quo. “Covid didn’t have much of an impact on my decision-making process because everywhere is going to have the same challenges.”

Last year, Carleton residence students were the subject of much criticism, as their perilous gathering habits garnered the attention of the news and the scolding of the university administration. Since then, restrictions have eased up and gathering limits are less harsh. Wignall believes students have been more relaxed this year as a result 

“I think people care a lot less than they did because everybody at Carleton has to be double vaccinated, which makes people much more relaxed, possibly more than they should be,” he explained. “I’ve definitely heard of a lot of parties where people aren’t going to be masked.”

Wignall admitted to having little knowledge of pre-pandemic student party habits, “but I definitely do think that they are much more relaxed than they were in, you know, May of 2020, when everything was kicking off,” he said.

When asked if he felt safe on campus amidst the relaxing of restrictions, Wignall expressed his comfort. “I’m double vaccinated, I feel safe. If I don’t trust someone…then I won’t spend time with them, but if I don’t trust someone then I’m not going to spend any time with them regardless.”

“Maybe the only thing is [that] it’s just harder to socialize with people behind masks,” he added. “It’s something to get used to, it’s definitely harder to make small talk, to meet people in hallways or in classes.” 

A blended education

As for those classes, Wignall said “When classes aren’t in-person, they feel much more optional, and they really aren’t.”

“I do have one in-person class. It’s by far my favourite,” he continued. “There’s a pretty stark difference between all of the different types [of classes] I’ve experienced, and in-person is leaps and bounds above the rest — just because you can see your classmates, you can see the prof, you can actually have discussions without hovering over the unmute button all the time.”

Third-year student Eddy Assaf (Bachelor of Economics) expressed a similar preference for in-person lectures. 

“It’s really fun being in a normal class with people to talk to again,” he explained, stating that his work-life balance was much improved from last year.

“It has been better mentally to have one class in-person,” he said, commenting that  the continued prevalence of online course delivery has been this year’s biggest problem. 

“Any type of online course is bad,” he said, “We chose to be in an in-person university, not to take an online course and teach ourselves.”

When asked about the restrictions Carleton has implemented to facilitate in-person instruction, Assaf expressed his frustration.

“Most of those measures are just too excessive,” he said. “We need to scan at the entry to every building. It feels like there has got to be a better way.”

The consensus among students then, regardless of their views on the new restrictions, seems to be that online instruction just doesn’t compare to in-person. It seems, however, that Carleton didn’t align with its students on this issue. 

The future of the school year 

“In September of 2021, Carleton students received an email from Suzanne Blanchard, Vice President (Students and Enrolment) promising that more online course options would be made available for the winter 2022 term. On November 10, 2021, the university followed up on this email, announcing that it would be making changes to course delivery options for the upcoming semester, with the reason for the alterations being to “maximize flexibility for students.” On November 15, these changes were finalized, and in the days following, Carleton students would take to social media and make news headlines, conveying their exasperation.”

The changes made not only enhanced online course options, but they severely limited the options for in-person courses in the Winter 2022 term. This was out of tune with previous statements, which led many students to believe that the winter semester would have increased in-person options from what was offered in the fall. Just a few weeks prior to the announcement, in his mid-fall update to students, Carleton President Benoit-Antoine Bacon conveyed the University Scenario Planning Working Group’s recommendations for the winter 2022 term, namely that the “safe and gradual return to campus continues to unfold, with a mix of in-person and online courses to ensure maximum flexibility for students.” 

Similarly, on November 9, a statement entitled “Looking Ahead to Winter 2022” had been released by the Carleton Newsroom, which included statements such as: “The Winter 2022 term will see more in-person classes than Fall 2021,” and “we anticipate that we will be able to have more activity on campus due to our vaccination, masking and screening requirements.”

With such a reversal, students understandably felt blindsided by classes being converted to the online format less than two months before the winter term was set to begin — especially since this came without warning, as the new Omicron variant wouldn’t garner the attention of health officials for another month. This raises the issue of whether transparency with students was a priority for the university at all. Now, students who signed residence contracts and made arrangements to be in Ottawa would have more online classes than they were originally led to believe.  

“I don’t know what they were thinking,” said Assaf. “The students, especially the ones that are living in Ottawa, sacrificed a lot to come here.” The confusion is warranted, as Carleton has provided little reasoning for the changes other than the vague “maximizing flexibility for students”. 

Wignall expressed a similar displeasure with the university administration, especially in the context of the praise they’ve awarded themselves so far in their pandemic response. “My respect for the Carleton Administration is very low,” he said. “I’ve heard about other universities who seem to be doing just as well if not better, so what are they bragging about?”

Seating on the Carleton University campus. (Photo: Abby Adair)

Mounting student opposition

On the heels of the winter term news, Carleton students took to social media to voice their disappointment. At the time of publication, a petition demanding transparency from the university on their decision has collected 4,783 signatures. Its page is filled with the stories of students affected by these unexpected changes — including criticisms of the $700 administrative fee they are being charged to exit their residence contracts, frustrations with having signed leases in Ottawa for what now looks like a mostly online semester, and anxieties about how their education might suffer from another semester online.

Jack Wooldridge (Bachelor of Engineering) is one such student who made plans to come to Ottawa for the Winter 2022 semester. 

“Since the change I have had two lectures switched to online, joining a tutorial that was already set to be online,” he explained. “As of now, I have three courses that are in-person along with all tutorials and labs.”

Wooldridge shared the sentiments of students signing the recent petition. “Maybe the university could have been more honest and frequent with its updates on their course delivery decisions,” he said.  “I don’t keep up with the updates from the university very often, but looking back through the State of the Raven weekly emails, they never really seemed to talk about if their decision was changing.”

“Obviously due to the pandemic, course delivery is subject to change rapidly,” he expanded, “but an announcement and reversing of many courses to online could be and was very jarring to several students this late into the fall.”

Carleton’s bid to offer more “flexibility” to students appears to have simply exchanged in-person options for online options, favouring greater selection for online students. This begs the question, however, whether a university with vast resources and funding such as Carleton should have to choose between which students to accommodate at all. 

Wooldridge explained that a friend of his currently living in Ottawa had their entire timetable converted to online delivery, but that he understands that in-person delivery isn’t feasible for everyone. “I think that an all-or-nothing approach doesn’t work, and students should have the option to come to classes or stay online, at least for the pandemic.

“I have been planning to make it down to Ottawa for the winter since the beginning of fall term, so if I had a full timetable of in-person classes I’d be happy,” he expanded. “I understand where the concern may be for other students though, especially international students.”

“This is why options are important,” said Wooldridge, “so those who are paying rent can be in the classroom with peers, and those who might work better online or are struggling to try and get to Ottawa don’t have to.”

In response to the recent news, the Carleton Student Government Association has announced plans to lobby for more in-person class options, as well as for an emergency fund for students impacted by the changes. The university itself has yet to formally respond, leaving the final picture of what the winter 2022 term might look like still up in the air.

Socializing with masks and regulations and learning in a blended environment.  Illustration: Crystal Yung

Moving Forward 

In light of these developments, Carleton students are now facing a winter 2022 semester just as uncertain as the semesters before it, with the final ratio of online to in-person class options still ambiguous. It’s hard not to wonder, though, if the university can still justify its disorganization this far into the pandemic, when its own students have already proven their ability to adapt and readapt constantly.  

Last year students faced the challenges of pursuing a university education online with little help from the school in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Once again, the responsibility has fallen to students to endure the tribulations of the pandemic. Once again, students are seemingly an afterthought to their own university. 

With both in-person and online course options being valuable to different demographics of students, it’s not ludicrous to wonder if a solution exists in which both are maximized. Certainly the technology exists, as recordings of in-class lectures have been around for some time, and they are just one possible way to provide both online and in-person instruction. There are also examples of Ontario universities which have made a near-normal return to campus this fall, such as Queens or Western — seemingly proving the ability of universities to restore in-person instruction. Even outside of the education realm, gyms, libraries, and other public spaces have been operating in-person for months, which contrast the refusal of Carleton to operate in a similar capacity.

Over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the lives of Carleton students continue to be ruled by uncertainty and instability. The economic and social impacts of the pandemic cannot be overstated, and students paying for higher education should be supported by their institutions during this difficult time. Carleton University should step up, utilize the resources at their disposal, and do better to support the education and needs of all students. 

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