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Planning for the Fall 2020 semester during COVID-19

Statement from President Loreman about planning for the Fall 2020 semester during COVID-19

The Alberta context

Last week the Government of Alberta announced Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy, with Stage 1 potentially being implemented on May 15. It is clear that regardless of which stage we are at “Post-secondary institutions will continue course delivery, but method (online, in-person or blend) will depend on the restrictions in place at each phase.” Stage 1 restrictions are such that gatherings of more than 15 people are not permitted, and those must follow physical distancing and other public health guidelines. Restrictions are eased incrementally at each of the 3 stages in the strategy, although the timing for moving forward is dependent on the success of the preceding stage and physical distancing of 2m must be respected throughout all stages. The most recent modelling (April 28) shows only a very small number of hospitalizations predicted for late August.

Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy, combined with the predicted marked drop-off of COVID-19 cases in Alberta in August, is good news. The assumption may be that university campuses will fully reopen for face-to-face classes in Fall 2020. Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely to be the case, and almost all post-secondary institutions in Canada are planning to return entirely or mostly with online classes in the Fall. Alex Usher provides a good explanation as to why that is the case here, which I highly recommend reading.

The CUE context

At CUE, we are making our decisions about Fall 2020 based on a few broad factors, including:

  • Safety, following all recommendations and mandates from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
  • Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy, and the desire to get back to normal as soon as possible.
  • What is possible given the constraints of our physical campus and resources.
  • What has the least negative impact on our students and employees.
  • What we do not know, including dates when it will be safe and advisable to resume normal campus life (or versions of it).

Concordia’s administration has for some weeks now been developing plans for three scenarios for the Fall, which are: A full return to face-to-face classes; beginning the semester online and transitioning to face-to-face, or; online classes only for the entire semester. This is somewhat an over-simplification of the matter, as each of these options has various nuances and possibilities for modification, but in general terms this is what we are looking at. Each of these scenarios has risks and advantages, the main ones, but certainly not the only ones, being as follows:

ScenarioMain advantagesMain risks
Full return to face-to-face classes.Return to some form of normality.

Mental health improves through in-person interactions. The community can re-unite with friends, make new friends, and engage in select social activities (2m apart).

Courses that cannot be taught online can be offered.

Most of our community strongly prefer face-to-face learning in the majority of courses.

Residence can be open, student services are offered in-person.
Risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus resulting from an inability to adequately physical distance. We then have to close campus with no notice. People may become sick and die. Our community includes people who are immuno-compromised and are at heightened risk, along with those who live with elderly relatives.

We may discover shortly before classes start that we cannot hold face-to-face classes because COVID-19 infections remain unacceptably high in Alberta. Instructors are then scrambling to re-tool their courses for online, reducing quality. Some courses are cancelled with little notice, creating anxiety. Internships and practicum placements are potentially cancelled at short notice with no alternative arrangements.
Beginning the semester online and transitioning to face-to-face.Given that most of our community strongly prefer face-to-face learning in the majority of courses, this offers the possibility of a flexible return to campus once it is safe, even though it may not be safe to do so at the start of the semester.

We could experience some semblance of campus life and social activities late in the semester, although likely these would be limited in various ways.

Some mental health benefits, although this may be balanced off with the anxiety produced by such a profound change in mid-semester.
It is very difficult for instructors to plan courses in such a way as to be able to ‘turn on a dime’ on short notice. In many cases, the quality of courses would be negatively impacted.

Students who do not live near CUE, including international students (17% of our student population) will, at short notice, need to make arrangements to be on campus. The ability for students to plan their lives for the semester is compromised. What happens to students who cannot make it back in time?

The logistics of re-opening the physical campus mid-semester and at short notice in such a way as to respect whatever public health guidelines may be in place at the time are formidable.
Online classes only for the entire semester.Physical distancing is maintained, and the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at CUE is vastly reduced.

Instructors would know what they are dealing with for the Fall, and could prepare high-quality online learning experiences. In the Winter 2020 semester we did well to get through with an unanticipated switch to online education. In the Fall 2020 semester, with adequate notice and resources, we could thrive.

Students would have advance notice of what they are dealing with for the Fall, and could make lifestyle decisions, such as where to live, accordingly.
With the exception of a couple of long-term online programs, nobody chooses to study at CUE because they want an online learning experience. The same is true for instructors. We will all be less happy.

Continued social isolation can have a profound impact on mental health.

Our community could experience a feeling of alienation from campus life. Although we would do our best through virtual means, many of the fun social activities and other opportunities that happen at CUE simply could not take place.

The most difficult variable in terms of making this decision is that despite the positive outlook for September in the Alberta COVID-19 modelling we do not know when it will be safe to once again gather in classrooms. Generally, our classrooms at CUE, as in most educational institutions, do not allow for 2m physical distancing. Tegler and other common areas cannot accommodate our community if we all stay 2m apart as we are supposed to. In addition, while we are known for small classes, there is a limit. Groups of larger than 15 are currently not allowed to gather, and we do not know when they will be. So, do we take a gamble and assume COVID-19 will all be over before September and life will be back to normal, with all the risks that entails? I do not yet have the answer to that, but I will say I am not willing to gamble on safety.

The process moving forward

Herein lies yet another dilemma. The longer we wait to make a decision about what the semester in Fall 2020 will look like, the more information we will have about the progress of COVID-19 in Alberta and the likely restrictions in the Fall. However, balancing that out, there is pressure to make a decision soon in order to provide adequate preparation time for our community. Our faculty and sessional instructors cannot convert their courses into high-quality online learning experiences overnight, and students need to make decisions about their lives and study options. At a certain point we will need to decide. If possible, we will have a decision by late May or early June, although we may need some flexibility around this deadline.

Concordia’s administration have spent April preparing plans for each scenario along with recommendations with respect to the viability of each. Members of the President’s Executive Council (PEC) began considering these scenario plans earlier today. The next stage is for the Crisis Management Team to have a discussion regarding the scenarios in order to offer PEC advice. Once this is done, and PEC have discussed it further, I will prepare an outline of all viable options, along with a recommendation on how to move forward. I will take this first to the Executive Committee of our General Faculties Council (GFC), and then following that to the full GFC for discussion. Students have seats on some of these teams and councils, and I will be in conversation with the presidents of the CSA and GSA throughout. I will also remain in conversation with our Board of Governors throughout.

Concordia’s administration has a strong grasp of both the big picture and the details around this issue, along with experience in running our university. We are best placed to guide the university through this. No scenario is yet off the table, and we may yet be able to combine some elements of the various scenarios. Our goal is to open up CUE to the maximum extent possible, but we will do what is required to keep everyone safe. The buck stops with the president, and that fact weighs heavily as we make our decision.

We all want this to be over and done with so that we can get on with our lives, but reopening a university in a pandemic is not as simple as it may seem on the surface. We need to face the realities we are living through, and make decisions accordingly. All other post-secondary institutions across Canada are in exactly this same boat. I hope that this statement has helped to highlight some of the main issues we are considering as we plan for Fall 2020. You can expect more information as it comes to hand.

Tim Loreman, PhD
President and Vice Chancellor
May 4, 2020