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. 

Fall semester has been rough for students, yet it doesn’t look like Mac will be adjusting anything for the winter semester

It’s no surprise that lots of students are feeling the stress of an online semester. That’s because it’s not just an online semester — it’s an online semester during a pandemic. 

A friend recently reached out to me to see how I was finding this semester. I told him that it has been challenging in more ways than one.

I have found it very difficult to focus on studying, work or even to do things that I enjoy doing, such as reading and drawing. As someone who has a disability that affects my ability to concentrate, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise for me. But with the pandemic, not only has my concentration gotten worse, but it has also been difficult for those without disabilities to focus as many are feeling heightened stress and anxiety due to COVID-19. This constant state of worry detracts from our ability to focus on tasks and as a result, shortens our attention span.

Furthermore, our homes have become the place that we now do everything. I attend doctor’s appointments, talk to my therapist, do my homework, attend work meetings, and partake in hobbies — all from my room. Not having a change of scenery can be difficult.

https://twitter.com/RGothoskar/status/1318197090456055809

My friend mentioned that he also found that many friends at school — specifically, ones taking a full course load — have found it incredibly difficult to study and focus during this semester. He told me that he wanted to gather information as to how different students feel about this online semester and what would help them for the winter semester if things were to change.

That’s when the metaphorical alarm went off in my head. Yes, we all know students have been struggling with school this semester — but is McMaster University going to do anything to help us?

I can tell you that both my friend and I realized that Mac probably isn’t going to change the way things are being run for next semester. Currently, many issues have been brought up by students regarding an online semester that have not been addressed.

For example, students at Mac and other Canadian universities have raised their concerns about proctoring software being used for testing. While proctoring software can put our privacy at risk, it also puts students who have concentration issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, at a disadvantage. Proctoring software can track your eye movement and many students with concentration issues cannot manage to look at a computer for several hours on end. In fact, I would argue that most students would have trouble doing that.

I don’t blame McMaster for the rocky start with the fall semester. They had to adapt quickly over the summer and I understand that must have been difficult. But if they keep running things the way that they currently are — despite many students struggling and complaining about the semester — then there’s an issue.

In response to some of the recent beefs on here: Yes of course McMaster staff are having a hard time as well, that's...

Posted by Spotted At Mac on Friday, November 20, 2020

On a lighter note, a few ways that some of my courses have run have really improved online school for me. For one of my courses, we have unlimited time to complete a quiz, so long as it is completed within a timeframe of four days. In addition, this course has a take-home exam instead of a timed exam. These methods of testing help students spend as much time as they need to succeed without having to worry about not being able to concentrate or having wifi connectivity issues during the test. 

However, I know that this is not the norm for many courses and definitely not standardized across courses. This is something that Mac could look into for the following semester, but I doubt anything will be done about it.

Another thing that has benefited me is that most of my instructors have been very lenient with providing extensions. It’s important to note that sometimes students may need an extension even if they don’t have proper medical documentation. Maybe they’re sick but are finding it difficult to get a doctor’s note due to the pandemic or maybe they’re just having a bad day.

Either way, it is important for instructors to be compassionate during this hardship we’re all experiencing. However, instructors are currently not mandated to provide extensions and I can tell you from experience that there are definitely professors out there who are less than willing to provide an extension.

But at the end of the day, is Mac going to listen to our concerns? Will the university listen to our feedback and adapt accordingly? I really want to say that they do care about us, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that Mac will run the next semester as business as usual.

The start of 2018 brings mixed feelings in regards to starting off the year on the right foot and beginning a new semester. Resolutions, and talks of “bettering” ourselves can be helpful for motivation, but sometimes they bring a daunting perspective to the new year. Here are some reasonable, but helpful, resolutions and motivations that you can make for 2018, without getting too stressed out.

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Go to a class. If we’re being quite honest, there’s a lot of students who don’t end up going to classes. Whether it be mental wellness reasons, extracurriculars or sleeping in, it can be quite easy just to stay at home instead of making the trek to school in the snow. Try making it to at least one class this week.

 

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Give yourself a bedtime. Friends, partying or even Netflix binges can have students messing up their sleep schedules. And while staying up until 4 am finishing up the latest season of Black Mirror can be fun, rest is incredibly important for mental well-being and for learning. Give yourself a time you want to be under the covers and make sure you get a healthy 8 hours sleep.

 

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Put down your phone. While mobile phones are the main way we communicate with people now, they can become distracting when you’re trying to hang out with friends and family in real life. On your next trip to Snooty’s with the lads, or during a wine and movie night, turn off your device and enjoy the moment.

 

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Drink more water. If you’re reading this, without a doubt you know about the ~magical properties~ of water. As humans are made out of 60% of water, it’s vital to our lives: it makes our skin better, it helps with headaches, and it flushes out waste and bacteria. Set a daily alarm to make sure you get at least one big bottle of water in a day (the ideal amount is 2L though)!

 

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Eat. As a university student, ye old “three balanced nutritional meals a day” seems like something from a different universe. With school, jobs and other commitments busting up our schedule, eating out and eating less can easily become the alternative. Drag yourself to your nearest grocery store to stock up on nutrients for the week.

This list may seem simple, but it’s important to re-center ourselves and get back into positive routines! Happy 2018 y’all!

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