C/O Georgia Kirkos

What the university hopes a near full return to in-person will look like 

2022 marks nearly two years of McMaster University students adjusting to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After the initial school closure in March 2020, the McMaster community has faced recurring uncertainty every semester. Unfortunately, it seems the winter semester of 2022 will be no different. 

In October of 2021, McMaster informed students that the university is planning for a near full return to in-person activities in the winter semester after a hybrid fall semester. 

Kim Dej, McMaster’s associate vice-provost, believed the school has been successful in adapting to COVID-19 regulations amid the hybrid format.

“I think as a community, McMaster faculty, staff and absolutely students did a great job. I really do feel like we all held it together. We supported one another. We recognized that things weren't going to be perfect, but we adapted well,” said Dej during a MacDiscussions roundtable hosted by the Silhouette and CFMU in early December. 

During MacDiscussions, Sean Van Koughnett, the dean of students, and Denver Della-Vedova, the McMaster Students Union president, also joined Dej in addressing what they anticipate the winter semester would look like. 

Speaking about eating areas, Van Koughnett said that though the school is planning to have the majority of food services open, they must also balance considerations of health and safety. 

“There are a couple of locations in [the Student Centre] that will be closed because we’re trying to keep congestion to a minimum, if possible. So, for instance, in MUSC, Teriyaki [Experience] and Booster Juice will be closed, [but] Booster Juice in DBAC will be open, so if students want Booster Juice they can go there,” said Van Koughnett. 

“There are a couple of locations in [the Student Centre] that will be closed because we’re trying to keep congestion to a minimum, if possible."

Sean Van Koughnett, Dean of students

For classes, Dej emphasized that although bringing students back in person is important, the school is also mindful of offering flexibility. This includes a combination of online and in-person components to classes and more options for lectures to be recorded now. 

“[W]e have really invested in our learning spaces over the last 20 months. Most of our medium and large lecture halls have Echo 360, which is a capture tool that the MSU has been advocating for many years pre-pandemic and it means that live lectures can be streamed or they can be recorded,” said Dej. 

“[W]e have really invested in our learning spaces over the last 20 months. Most of our medium and large lecture halls have Echo 360, which is a capture tool that the MSU has been advocating for many years pre-pandemic and it means that live lectures can be streamed or they can be recorded,”

Kim Dej, Associate vice-provost

However, certain in-person components such as labs or tutorials may not offer an online option. If students are to miss those components, they would have to use a McMaster Student Absence Form for accommodations. 

Dej also added that she hopes students can make informed decisions about missing in-person lectures since in-person interactions can be uniquely valuable. 

With the MSU, Della-Vedova said that the plan is to introduce more in-person returns amongst staff and reevaluate at the end of January to see where things can go for the rest of the semester. 

“[A] number of our services will still be provided online, but will likely move more into that hybrid space where folks can access them a few select times a week in person,” said Della-Vedova. 

“[A] number of our services will still be provided online, but will likely move more into that hybrid space where folks can access them a few select times a week in person,” said Della-Vedova. 

Denver Della-Vedova, McMaster students union president

During this episode of MacDiscussions, concerns over the Omicron variant were also brought up. 

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization classified a new variant known as Omicron as a variant of concern for the COVID-19 virus. This was soon followed by cases of the variant identified in Canada only a few days later. 

At the time of recording, McMaster had not announced any new changes to their operations as a result of the Omicron variant’s appearance and Van Koughnett said the school will continue to adapt should the government implement any changes.  

Unfortunately, soon after, a rapid rise in Omicron variant cases began to occur and on Dec. 14, McMaster announced that the first week of the winter semester will be entirely online. The school stated that this measure was taken to be proactive about safety concerns the new variant may pose. 

On Jan. 3, Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, held a press conference to announce that the province will be returning to a modified stage 2 of the reopening plan as of Jan. 5. This includes a decrease in social gathering limits, reduced capacity limits in a variety of settings and the prohibition of indoor dining. Schools are also being moved to remote learning until at least Jan. 17. 

On Jan. 3, Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, held a press conference to announce that the province will be returning to a modified stage 2 of the reopening plan as of Jan. 5.

As a result of these new provincial guidelines, on Jan. 5, McMaster announced that the school will be pushing back in-person classes. 

Starting Jan. 17, only labs, clinical and other high-priority hands-on activities will be taught in person. Then, on Jan. 31, first-year students will be returning to campus for in-person classes. In-person classes for all other students are scheduled to begin on Feb. 7. 

In-person classes for all other students are scheduled to begin on Feb. 7.

Other university operations such as food services will also be adjusted to align with provincial guidelines. Indoor dining will be closed in all eateries, but take-out is still available in certain locations and will be open as of Jan. 17. 

C/O Mark Sanchez

The pandemic will come to an end, but only with fair and meaningful restrictions

Cloth masks won’t cut it anymore, so you must purchase medical masks. No, not those, the expensive ones that are out of stock. If you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, isolate yourself from family and friends for a minimum of ten days. You should definitely be back to work in five though. 

We will start to limit PCR testing, so instead, use rapid-antigen testing kits. Good luck finding those, but if you do, don’t use them because they’re not accurate. You need PCR. But wait, they have great news! Elite sports are allowed to run. Not the largest university athletics organization in Ontario though, they said elite. 

As hard as it may be to believe right now, all pandemics do eventually come to an end, though the fate of this one is clouded by the rising Omicron variant. Just as many started to regain hope for returning to a pandemic-free lifestyle, the Ford government placed further restrictions in Ontario in response to Omicron on Jan. 6, 2022. 

These changes included a halt to indoor dining, gyms, movie theatres and further capacity limits for essential and non-essential businesses. 

The execution of these changes, however, left many confused with questions about how this will aid in efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, with just one thought at the forefront of thousands of minds: make it make sense. 

How exactly does this response fit into the potential end of the COVID-19 pandemic? First, it’s important to note that this alleged “end” cannot be abrupt, but one so gradual that COVID-19 will become something that the world simply has to learn to coexist with. 

This may sound frightening at first, but recall that the human race has been doing this for centuries with viruses such as influenza and measles. 

After establishing that COVID-19 isn’t going away, governments must set clear and realistic goals of how life is expected to be like upon endgame and take measures that directly result in said goals. At some point, the World Health Organization would declare when the pandemic is officially over, after measuring each country’s success in controlling case counts, or hospitalizations and deaths at the very least. 

This would mark the endemic, or a post-pandemic state many would call the “new normal”. The endemic would mean reaching a somewhat steady-state of manageable cases, but how many is not exactly a scientific question, but a social one. 

Omicron has proven to be an ultra-contagious variant so different as a result of mutations that it has managed to evade detection by immune defences gathered through previous infections and even vaccines.

That being said, Omicron essentially marks the beginning of when the virus will eventually max out in its ability to drastically mutate and make large evolutionary jumps. 

New variants would still arise every so often again, much like the flu, but booster vaccines that are better catered to new mutants will also continue to evolve, as will the human immune system. 

Additional measures and meaningful restrictions can effectively reduce hospitalizations caused by Omicron and give the general population a chance to boost their vaccinations. After all, it’s easy to point out that a major barrier preventing the COVID-19 pandemic from evolving into a flu-like endemic is hospitalizations and deaths. 

With over 100,000 active cases in the province, this is more important now than ever. 

Despite this, the request still seems to remain: make it make sense. As long as healthcare pursues a capitalist model, anything experts will say may be perceived as persuasion and manipulation rather than facts that fuel an effort to safeguard the public. 

Living in low-income areas where healthcare may not be accessible is conducive to (valid) feelings of confusion and neglect. 

Naturally, the first community that government officials turn to for information and guidance is the scientific one. Where most governments fall short is listening to research done by the social science and humanities community. 

Time and time again, social scientists have identified how public health communication can impact the way people respond and act. Especially since this crisis so heavily relies on behavioural changes on a massive scale, social science can be used to align human behaviour with scientific recommendations. 

The public continues to announce their frustration on further restrictions and lockdown measures that don’t seem to offer any slivers of hope. Some have even drawn comparisons between COVID-19 and suicide death rates, implying the importance of one over the other. 

However, ranking equally important issues and insinuating the dismissal of one will not solve nor validate the other. 

So how exactly can the government induce restrictions that appease the general public? It’s impossible. What’s completely plausible though, is alleviating mass confusions that accompany tighter regulations. 

Lockdowns and public health measures will continue to seem like a performance act to the public unless they’re joined by measures that rebuild the damages inflicted by for-profit agendas on our healthcare system. It may be the key to reaching the endgame before running out of greek alphabet letters. 

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