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Should Ontario university students return to residence?

Should Ontario university students return to residence?
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Some university and college students across the province have returned to school, but experts say campuses and residences should be closed amid the new lockdown measures.

“Universities and college campuses are the one component where most students can do the majority of learning virtually,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“We have essential businesses that we need to keep open and we’ve identified schools as a priority, so we need to make trade-offs here.”

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at U of T, echoed her comments, saying “I don’t have a post-secondary child, but if I did I would not be comfortable with having them in a residence right now … I think it’s a tinderbox.”

Ontario is in a province-wide state of emergency as COVID-19 cases continue to soar, with the government issuing a 28-day stay-at-home order that begins Thursday.

Among universities, some — Toronto, Guelph, Waterloo and Trent — have reopened residences. Others have urged students to stay away, with Queen’s asking them to remain home until the end of January. Western, which has seen several COVID-19 outbreaks, will allow students back in residence starting mid-February.

The main issue with students returning to campus is the movement of people from place to place, which can spread the infection between cities, said Tuite.

For this reason, she added, going home may not be the safest solution for students who have already returned to university residences.

“We need to minimize movement, whether that’s students coming back to campus or students who are on campus going home, it’s basically the same thing,” Tuite said.

In the absence of regular COVID-19 testing, universities can prevent outbreaks by implementing mandatory quarantine periods, minimizing contact as much as possible between students, and reinforcing public health precautions, she said.

At the University of Toronto, residences remain open and “have already implemented a number of measures to keep students safe and to ensure students in residence are socially distanced, including single rooms for all students, mask protocols, increased cleaning, take-away meals and other measures,” said a spokesperson, adding that a quarantine program is in place for students returning from international destinations.

Students at the University of Waterloo are back in residence for the winter term, with safety measures such as Plexiglas at the front desks and in study rooms, mandatory mask warnings in common spaces, single bedrooms, touchless faucets in bathrooms and quarantining options. A COVID-19 testing centre on campus is available for students, staff and faculty.

“It is important to offer these spaces for students who need them — particularly international students who might not have anywhere else to go,” said Glen Weppler, director of housing.

There are different risk factors involved with returning students back to class and opening residences, said Dr. Anna Banerji, pediatric infectious disease specialist. Whether roommates are sharing a room or a washroom can elevate the risk of COVID-19 spread in residences, and socializing in hallways and congregating in groups can increase the risk of viral transmission, she said.

“It depends on each school and each residence, but I think in general, a lot of these dorms are not the safest place for students to be right now,” Banerji said.

Furness says the combination of congregate living and a very social age group could be really dangerous, calling the expectation of students to stay in their rooms and not socialize a “real stretch.”

Chris Alleyne, Western University’s associate vice-president of housing, said the school has delayed in-person classes to Feb. 21 and will only allow students back in residence starting in mid-February.
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