What exactly does an in-person experience mean after months of remote education?

In March of 2020, students at McMaster University watched their academics get shifted to a virtual landscape. Now, after almost a year and a half, virtual learning appears to be coming to an end. On Oct. 21, Susan Tighe, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), announced that McMaster is currently planning for an in-person winter semester in 2022.

“As I announced at our Back to Mac town halls in June, McMaster is currently planning to resume in-person classes in the winter term with very limited exceptions. Teams across campus are also planning to ramp up on-campus student life activities so they are closer to, if not meeting, pre-pandemic capacities. This includes services and resources, events and student study and social space,” said Tighe.

On Nov. 18, Tighe will complete a State of the Academy address, a virtual event where students will have the opportunity to learn about the current state of McMaster University regarding academics and other matters.

Talking about how the decision of an in-person winter semester came to be, Tighe shared that the process had begun in February of 2021. Moreover, she explained how, as January neared, the McMaster community was on its way to be fully vaccinated. 

“We were fairly confident that by the winter semester we’d be able to have vaccinations in place. We were recognizing they were on the rise and that we’d be able to return to an in-person [semester]. I really want to reinforce it was a collaboration with many people across campus and external to the institution to really help us with the planning,” said Tighe.

Tighe further explained that the mandates that McMaster had put in place were crucial to getting back to an in-person climate. This included the mandated use of MacCheck by students, faculty and staff. This digital tool enabled the McMaster community to log the presence or absence of COVID-19 symptoms in addition to their vaccination status. As of now, most areas on campus require clearance via MacCheck’s COVID-19 symptoms questionnaire. 

“Health and safety have been the priority from the beginning. So I think that, what was a real differentiator for McMaster, we didn’t want to bring people back on campus if we weren’t confident that our structures and procedures and policies really promoted a very safe environment,” said Tighe.

While speaking about the way in which planning for an in-person winter semester panned out, Tighe explained how she heard from many students that they’d missed campus and in-person social interactions. 

Although returning back to in-person classes may have its benefits, it can also pose barriers for students, especially international students who are currently not in Canada. Acknowledging how hard it’s been for these students to adjust, Tighe explained how the university is trying to support international students amidst the announcement.

“In order for us to get in front of this, the International Student Services and School of Graduate Studies have been working individually with our international students to assess when they are coming to Canada, how they plan to arrive and if they need to quarantine . . . So what we’ve actually encouraged, and suggested, is that all of our international undergraduate students are required to sign up for the iCent, to make sure they have the proper information to support them for their unique circumstances,” explained Tighe. 

She explained further the ways in which McMaster has prepared to accommodate these students with services such as the vaccine clinic and quarantine spaces within residences. She also emphasized that McMaster ISS personalized support for immigration so that students can settle in better. 

If a student is truly unable to come to campus, Tighe explained that professors are encouraged  to use programs like Echo360 for lectures and to allow for virtual completion of courses. Moreover, she urged students that are facing barriers relating to the in-person switch for Winter 2022 to contact their academic advisors to get the support they need. 

Jane Lee, a fifth-year commerce student and the Social Media Coordinator for the Silhouette, spoke about her own experiences with this transition. Lee currently has almost entirely remote courses, with one in-person lecture for one of them. She explained that when school does become in-person, it will take her over 40 minutes to commute to school. Lee was quick to admit that for her such a transition isn’t that much of a hassle, but for her peers, it could really be stressful.

“I really don’t know how [international students] are going to prepare on such short-term notice. Especially because I have a friend even down in Toronto, which is not even a whole country away and she is scrambling to try and find a house for winter term. You see the housing groups. There are so many posts with people . . . It’s not a good market to be in right now,” said Lee. 

As a fifth-year student, Lee’s classes aren’t as frequent so she only has to go on campus once a week for three hours with 30-40 students. Lee explained that she was pretty shocked at how few regulations, including the use of MacCheck, were thoroughly enforced while she was there. 

“Even though I’ve had one in-person class this fall, it’s very interesting to see the different attitudes people have towards safety regulations . . . I go to class and there’ll be people [with their] mask on with their nose sticking out or people eating food in class,” explained Lee.

No matter what safety regulation McMaster implements, it is the responsibility of students to follow guidelines thoroughly. 

As McMaster begins to prepare for an almost entirely in-person winter 2022 semester, the community is adjusting as well. Not all students may be able to return to campus with ease, but campus support services are available for those who require assistance. 

By adhering to all necessary health and safety precautions, the university is hopeful that the community will do their part to return student activities to pre-pandemic capacities. 

C/O Yoohyun Park

In order to protect McMaster community members, McMaster created its own digital platform to enforce its COVID-19 precautions

On Aug. 16, McMaster University confirmed that it would be requiring vaccination against COVID-19 for all students on campus. This information was shared in a letter from the President and Provost, which also stated that an online platform would be developed to validate the vaccination information of students. 

This online platform, called MacCheck, officially launched on Sept. 7. Since its launch, all McMaster students, staff and faculty have been required to upload proof of vaccination. Further, students, staff and faculty who are accessing McMaster’s campus must answer a series of COVID-19 screening questions on MacCheck beforehand.

According to Kevin de Kock, Director of Enterprise Solutions and Applications, there weren’t any online platforms already available that suited McMaster’s needs. 

“A lot of the other applications didn't really have the ability for somebody to go in and validate the [proof of vaccination], so it was clear to us that we were going to have to build something ourselves,” said de Kock. 

Once the announcement was made on Aug. 16 that proof of vaccination would be mandatory, McMaster was left with only a few weeks before their Sept. 7 deadline to develop a digital COVID-19 screening platform. 

According to de Kock, MacCheck’s launch has been very successful so far. With over 34,000 people who have already submitted their proof of vaccination, many students seem to understand the importance of MacCheck. 

Gayleen Gray, Assistant Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, added that, despite the initial success of MacCheck, there is still more work to be done. According to Gray, McMaster needs proof of vaccination from around 47,000 individuals, meaning there are about 13,000 people who still have to upload to MacCheck. 

“It's really important to us that we provide people with their privacy obviously, so only authorized individuals are able to see the information, but there is an intention to, as we get closer to October 18, push harder to remind people [that] this is necessary,” Gray said. 

In the comments of a post on the Spotted at Mac Facebook page, some individuals raised concerns that MacCheck isn’t enforced on campus. 

When discussing McMaster’s approach to ensuring that the daily COVID-19 screenings are completed by individuals accessing campus, Gray emphasized the importance of creating a culture where everyone understands the importance of MacCheck for community safety. 

“What we were trying to do is get away from a policing kind of approach, where anybody at any time can say ‘show me your green check; I want to see if you’re okay to be on campus,’” Gray explained. 

“It's impossible to police this, and the intention was never to police it, but MacCheck is meant to be your one-stop shop to prove that you've been cleared to attend campus,” de Kock said. 

According to Gray, the McMaster community has embraced this culture of community protection, with MacCheck averaging over 7,000 COVID-19 screenings per day. This, Gray says, speaks to McMaster’s wider culture of health and safety, as well as its culture of empathy. 

“In terms of validating whether students have or have not done that, there's a huge amount of respect and trust that our students will do the right thing. They know that this is something that they're required to do,” said Gray. 

Along with McMaster’s own mandatory vaccine policy, Ontario has also begun requiring proof of vaccination for those wishing to access indoor dining, athletic facilities, theatres and other non-essential services. This policy came into effect on Sept. 22. 

In order to comply with the provincial rules, McMaster’s COVID-19 guidelines have been further tightened. Students wishing to eat in the McMaster University Student Centre or access indoor athletic facilities are now required to show proof of vaccination and identification. As well, multiple food service areas on campus have limited their seating.

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