U of W switches to e-learning amid Omicron fears

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University of Winnipeg students and staff will be ringing remotely during the winter term, following an announcement that the school will go online again in early 2022 due to concerns that daily cases of COVID-19 could skyrocket in the coming weeks.

“We understand that these measures will cause disruption and we share your frustration with the current public health situation,” James Currie, acting president and vice-chancellor, wrote Thursday.

In the déjà vu announcement, Currie said growing concerns about the highly transmissible variant of Omicron – including public health screenings announced on Wednesday – triggered the decision to revert to distance learning.

The move was made “to be very cautious” to protect the health of all members of the community, Currie said, adding that U of W leaders had met with the faculty association to discuss the matter beforehand.

The majority of classes, aside from labs and other courses that require in-person training, will be held virtually until the end of winter reading week in late February.

During this period, employees who can work remotely will be invited to do so.

The institution in downtown Winnipeg, which is set to reopen after the Jan.5 vacation, has pledged to review its plans at the end of January.

At the University of Manitoba, the gradual reopening is expected to continue, with in-person operations reaching pre-pandemic levels on January 24, the first day of its winter term, which was delayed due to a strike of faculty in the fall.

Immunocompromised students and learners living abroad want the university, Manitoba’s largest, to follow U of W’s lead.

To date, about 81 percent of U of M students and 72 percent of employees have uploaded their proof of vaccination – a requirement to be on campus this winter – on the school’s website.

The university’s security measures also include a requirement to use a reusable or disposable three-layer mask for indoor and outdoor campus activities and adjustment systems to incorporate air purifiers and increase both outdoor air intake and air exchange.

For Virginia Page Jähne, a 72-year-old doctoral student, these protocols do not address her concerns about protecting herself and her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease, against the new Omicron variant.

“I understand a lot of people want to go in person, and I’m very sympathetic, but I think what’s going on here is we’re making a comparison between inconvenienced people and people in danger of death,” said Page Jähne, who studies the intersection of ableism and ageism.

In response to a request to continue online learning this winter, the senior student said she had three options: postpone her studies; find distance learning courses at another institution; or come back to campus.

Earlier this week, when asked about plans to reopen, U of M President Michael Benarroch said the school’s plan was to welcome everyone to campus.

“It’s still under discussion, as we’ve learned from COVID that any plans you have may need to be adjusted,” said Benarroch, who oversees a university with a staff of around 31,000 and employs more than 9,000 people. .

(The U of W, which typically has smaller class sizes than the U of M, has fewer than 10,000 students and around 1,150 staff.)

Graduate student Sasha Braun said she was frustrated that the administration hadn’t made any accommodation plans since announcing a 2022 interim return to in-person operations more than nine months ago.

“It’s very ironic, because the university calls it a ‘safe return’ but they put the most vulnerable people – the immunocompromised, the elderly and so on, they put us at risk,” Braun said. , which is in the English department.

“As an immunocompromised person, I always had to fight tooth and nail in college to get housing. The pandemic has given us a time when we can do better. ”

In an email Thursday, a spokesperson for the university said the U of M recognizes that there are issues related to the pandemic beyond the control of students, whether they are disruption of plans travel or medical requirements, and encouraged students to contact administration regarding their concerns.

“The university wants to get back to normal operations and this two-way system is just not feasible, for every class to be taught both in person and online,” said Brendan Scott, president of the students’ union. undergraduate.

Scott said the union is encouraging faculty to record their lessons and publish them for students, and advocated for more online options in the future to meet the needs of students.

He also noted that the majority of students wish to return to campus.

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, which represents academics from the U of W and U of M, issued a statement Wednesday calling on administrators to increase security measures and, if necessary, to quickly call for return to distance learning.

“Omicron definitely makes me more hesitant, but I think we have a lot of tools we could use to ensure the safest environment possible,” said Aleeza Gerstein, assistant professor of microbiology and statistics at the U of M. .

Gerstein wants to teach students in person and to do so, said his employer should enforce N95 masks, demand a recall to visit campus and provide educators with CO2 meters to assess the quality of ventilation in classrooms .

– with files from Danielle Da Silva


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