By James McCarten, The Canadian Press
WASHINGTON — Post-secondary students from the pandemic-riven United States are getting ready to go back to school in Canada — a rite of passage that’s causing more anxiety than usual for parents and front-line university workers alike in the age of COVID-19.
At Montreal’s McGill University, some employees are growing worried the school prepares to welcome foreign students into on-campus residences, even those whose courses are entirely online.
Parents, too, are wrestling with new and unfamiliar concerns: the risk of on-campus infection, the fact border restrictions make in-person visits impossible and the prospect of their kids facing anti-American backlash.
One McGill employee, who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions at work, said there is concern among the rank and file of another “fiasco” like the outbreak at Quebec’s long-term care homes, which accounted for 80 per cent of the highest provincial total of COVID-19 deaths in Canada.
“I am in the office with, like, four colleagues and we’re all, ‘What’s going to happen?’ In America, it’s blowing up there like crazy, and people are supposed to be coming back in seven weeks,” said the employee, who described the group as front-line workers — many in their 50s or 60s, with elderly parents at home — who are typically in close contact with students.
“There are a lot of family concerns related to health that are connected with this. And, you know, maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about these things if I hadn’t seen America erupt into such a mess.”
Others, however, have faith the institution can keep students and staff safe.
“Part of our mandate is to not only educate but nurture and protect these young adults,” said Franco Taddeo, who’s worked in McGill’s library system since the 1990s. “Honestly, as a father and Canadian, I would much rather have these students here for their safety and well-being than being in present-day America.”
The novel coronavirus has infected more than 3.6 million people and killed 140,000 in the U.S., compared with 109,000 cases and 8,800 deaths in Canada. And it’s not the only thing giving U.S. parents sleepless nights.
They’re well aware of reports of Americans — accused of flouting travel restrictions — facing verbal abuse in Canada.
One mother, a dual citizen who heard tell of U.S. vehicles being vandalized, bought a looseleaf-sized magnet to attach to her car door that reads, “We are Canadian citizens and have completed our 14-day quarantine.”
Since students can complete course work online, one might wonder: why send them at all?
“We need to trust that she’ll make decisions to keep herself safe, either there or here,” said one mother, whose daughter is going into her second year at McGill, and who fears for her if her name is made public. The parents wrestled with whether to let her go.
“I kept saying to her, ‘I would prefer you stay home and wait.’ And she was like, ‘But my life is waiting for me there.’ So we’re letting her make the choice.”
In a statement, McGill would say only that fall courses will be offered “primarily through remote delivery platforms,” but that they are developing on-campus student life and learning activities “which will respect careful safety protocols.”
“We will continue to place the health and safety of our community first by working closely with public health authorities.”
At the University of Calgary, some international students have spent the summer in residence to avoid going back to countries where the virus is rampant or travel restrictions made going home impossible, said Susan Barker, the vice-provost in charge of student experience.
New arrivals will quarantine in residence, while some who lack living arrangements will be sequestered at local hotels, Barker said. Students from the U.S. are not being treated any differently from those from elsewhere, she added.
“Our values as an institution are about fairness and equity,” Barker said. “We haven’t had to make decisions that give students from somewhere preferential treatment over another.”
Some U.S. parents are taking comfort in knowing their children are escaping the U.S., where the newly resurgent virus is shattering daily records for new cases and deaths, fuelled by partisan divisions over face masks, reopening businesses and easing physical distancing requirements.
“It is completely bittersweet,” said the father of a second-year McGill student from a hard-hit southern state, also worried his child might be targeted. The good news, he said, is that his daughter “has made a connection, made a life and found a place in a culture and country that has some sense of the common good.”
At the University of Toronto, where 23,000 international students comprised nearly a quarter of the school’s 93,000-strong student body last year, a detailed and comprehensive plan is in motion to ensure the safety of all students, said Joe Wong, the school’s vice-provost and associate vice-president, international student experience.
Last year, U of T had 722 undergraduates and 514 graduate students from the U.S., and so far 268 new American students have accepted offers of admission, he said.
“All three levels of government are co-ordinating right now — they really are setting the bar high in terms of what is a safe and secure corridor for students and universities across the country,” Wong said.
“I can’t speak for others, but I know that they’re all working very hard to it, and the plan that we put together at U of T … goes above and beyond what most people expected.”
Students from outside Canada will be quarantined on campus for 14 days, regardless of whether they are planning to live on campus or not, Wong said, with daily check-ins with staff, meals delivered to their rooms and “co-curricular” programming to take part in while they ride out the waiting period.
“When they come out the other side of the quarantine, if they are healthy, then they will join the rest of the students who are on campus — of course, physically distanced and according to all the health authority’s regulations.”