Ontario Universities Are Playing Their Students Fools By Keeping Classrooms Closed

Traditionally, the ivory tower conjures up images of splendid seclusion as teachers court in the classroom, safe from the intrusions of the world.

Today, campus life is typically a Zoom apparition of the teacher in electronic isolation, away from students and ivy classes.

As Ontario emerges from COVID-19 hibernation, tens of thousands of post-secondary students are doomed to near quarantine, thanks to shy administrators and distant professors.

These students learn a life lesson about what it’s like to be played for fools and skinned by their fearful elders. Fully vaccinated and fully paid, these students were betrayed by the very institutions they thought would prepare them for life’s challenges.

How to explain the incongruity of packing thousands of students into college dorms – with shared cafeteria meals (no masks) and shared showers (no clothes) – only to deny them entry into the rooms class on the pretext that teachers might feel too close for comfort?

As my colleague Kristin Rushowy pointed out, many colleges and universities – but not all – have excluded students from classrooms, even though the province is far from closed. It is the inconsistency that is so incomprehensible and incriminating on campuses across Ontario.

The explanations sound like excuses that insult everyone’s intelligence. Which is never a good look at institutions of higher education that are supposed to instill critical thinking in impressionable young minds.

Why are Queen’s and Western open for business when McMaster and Wilfrid Laurier are virtually closed shops? Why did the University of Toronto and Guelph gleefully promise this month that they would primarily offer classroom learning next semester, as Carleton quietly informed students last week that half of its classes would stay online during the winter months?

If all post-secondary institutions had opted for the lowest common denominator, they might have gotten away from a collective explanation of pandemic caution. But when students on one campus can find themselves left out of the classroom, while their friends across town take full advantage of in-person instruction, while high schools across the province are wide open , the disconnection is inexplicable.

McMaster, who prides himself on his academic acuity, says he chose online courses primarily because he was aware of “the need for students to plan appropriately.” It’s more like admins who chose to stick to their pre-set plans rather than pivot when the world has changed.

Laurier has also been besieged by complaints that students have lost their pockets while languishing out of the classroom. (Full disclosure: one of mine is in Laurier – living in residence while banned from class – but I didn’t take a look.) A spokesperson for the university told Rushowy Laurier was “motivated by the university’s commitment to providing a safe environment for everyone on our campuses, in accordance with public health guidelines.” “

A safe environment? Does this mean that campuses that have opened wide elsewhere are dangerous, or simply that Laurier is not educated in the art and science of dealing with change?

For some students, this is the third year in a row to be compromised by COVID-19. The disruptions of the first two years were understandable given the high risks and lack of vaccination.

But in the third year, many universities appear to be fighting the last war rather than preparing for the current battle. They must continue to live and learn.

Student organizations believe that much of the blame lies with faculty associations, captives of the loudest voices who fear teaching from the front of the classroom. But university administrators who have chosen the path of least resistance – refusing to engage with faculty and refusing to reorganize schedules – bear the greatest blame for the loss of learning opportunities.

Now, professors can be heard harassing and lecturing discouraged students to turn on their Zoom cameras, rather than logging in with a disembodied avatar. And students living on campus are reduced to distance education, exiled from the classroom that is now an anachronism.

Certainly, the Progressive Conservative government gave mixed signals over the summer. But a July memo from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities telegraphed that Ontario was opening up as COVID-19 cases tended to decline, and in August, provincial authorities gave the green light.

It was late in the day, but not too late to adjust, as many of the more agile universities (Huron comes to mind) have shown. Today, Ontario campuses are a patchwork of online and classroom learning, based not on pedagogy or public health, but on institutional inertia.

The fall semester has become a loss for many students sentenced to their dorms instead of the classroom. Time is running out to save the winter session.

The question is whether latecomers can learn from their mistakes. Where there is a will, there is a way to pivot.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto columnist specializing in Ontario politics and international affairs for The Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn


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