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COVID situation means longer winter break for Laurentian students

Delayed start date for winter semester gives a longer incubation period for any COVID infections that might occur over holidays 
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Laurentian University. (File)

Given the current situation with COVID-19 in the province, the Laurentian University senate has voted to delay the beginning of the winter term from Jan. 10 to Jan. 17.

Accordingly, the last day of classes next term will be moved from April 8 to April 14, and the first day of exams moved from April 9 to April 16, and the last day of exams moved from April 29 to April 30.

You might be getting a bit of deja vu, as the Laurentian senate also voted to do the same thing last year.

The motion was brought forward by Laurentian Students’ General Association president Eric Chappell. He said there is a situation in Ontario where “things are moving quite rapidly,” referring to the spread of the Omicron variant in the province.

“And you know, coming back from New Year’s, we will probably be or have the risk of being in a very different circumstance than we are at this point in time,” Chappell said.

He said if students were to return to class Jan. 10, it would not have been a full two weeks since New Year’s Eve, “which for students is a point of great contact with other people.”

Diane Roy, Laurentian’s associate registrar, said her office had some concerns about the plan. She said it will mean five days of exams will be lost next spring, which will cause some scheduling issues.

Roy presented the alternatives of considering cancelling study week “in order to achieve everything we need to achieve in a term,” as well as students returning Jan. 10, but having the first week of class online instead of face-to-face.

She later clarified that if study week were to be cancelled, that decision would be brought to Laurentian’s senate.

“The registrar and myself have concerns about moving this date back another week,” Roy said.

However, in his comments, Laurentian president Robert Haché voiced his support for delaying the beginning of the term until Jan. 17, even though that reduces the flexibility in the school year calendar to “zero.”

Haché said even before Omicron started to blow up in Ontario in recent days, it was predictable that there was going to be a bubble in cases.

“We need to expect that, we need to plan for it,” Haché said. “And as you know, the incubation period is 10 to 14 days after the holidays. And if you go from Jan. 1, that takes you to Jan. 14 thereabouts.”

In terms of the option of having students start classes virtually Jan. 10, he said he doesn’t want students to feel like a “yo-yo,” in terms of moving between virtual and in-person instruction.

“I do truly believe and come to the conclusion that starting on the 17th is the most cautious approach that we can take that puts the interests of our students and the entire community at the forefront, the health and safety of all of those people,” Haché said. “And for that reason, I do support the motion.”

Laurentian administrators say if the university does end up having to go with online delivery next semester due to the COVID-19 situation, the Jan. 17 start date gives them more lead time for planning.

Laurentian psychology professor Josée Turcotte said while the university has permission to finish this term face-to-face, she’d be surprised if in-person classes were still happening at LU next term.

“I just want to say that the likelihood to go back on campus is not very high,” she said, adding that she was in support of starting the next term online, and making a decision from there.

Shannon Bassett, an architecture school professor at Laurentian, said she supported the Jan. 17 start date, as it gives faculty and students a much-needed mental health break.

She said she was opposed to the idea of eliminating reading week, as this break is also important for mental health.

“I, again, respectfully have to believe that there's measures that we can take to mitigate, you know, the crunched exam period,” Bassett said.

While she thinks the idea of cancelling exams is extreme, there could be alternative methods of evaluation employed instead.

Haché had to leave the Dec. 14 senate meeting early, as he was due to attend a meeting with the Council of Ontario Universities and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health regarding the COVID-19 situation and Ontario’s university sector.

He said he expected to have more clarity on the matter after this meeting, especially whether Laurentian could continue with face-to-face exams this month (there has already been a low-risk exposure in one of its exam sessions).

Later in the senate meeting, Tammy Eger, Laurentian’s vice-president, research, posted an update from Haché in the chat function on Zoom, although the update didn’t specifically address the issue of this month’s exam period.

The Council of Ontario Universities and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer were pleased to hear Laurentian has delayed the start of its winter term, Eger wrote.

The goal for the university sector during the winter term is to have a third-dose vaccine strategy to support face-to-face teaching, where possible, and some large classes may need to be reviewed, she said.

Sudbury.com reached out to Laurentian's communications department on the topic of this month's exams, and whether they will continue face-to-face. Laurentian communications replied in an email that "internal discussion on this topic continues. If it is determined that changes will be made, we will communicate this information as soon as possible."