On Dec. 31, McGill sent an email to all students and staff announcing that, in line with new Quebec regulations, the return to in-person learning would be delayed until January 24. The announcement came amid the surge in Omicron cases in the province and the world at large. However, despite McGill’s compliance with Quebec health mandates, the news puts students in a difficult position, stripping them of the option to choose when to come back to Montreal
Online learning has been very challenging for students due to increased screen time and prolonged isolation. While health risks associated with COVID-19 prompted many to postpone their return to Montreal, for some, the added support of family and friends made staying home during online school the best choice. Furthermore, even though individuals still need to pay rent in Montreal, staying home can be a way to save some money on daily things like laundry, food, and transit, especially when considering that many service jobs have been interrupted due to restrictions. In addition, the advantages of student life in Montreal, like being on campus, going to cafés, exploring the city, and hanging out with friends, are severely limited due to the Quebec lockdown. As a result, staying home might help avoid feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Considering the high rates of COVID-19 cases in the city, being home might also be the safest option for some, or at least a reassuring one—being sick and alone can be a very stressful situation. Lastly, depending on where it is that students call home, not going back to Montreal can mean better weather, safer COVID-19 environments, and more lax COVID-19 restrictions.
But beyond the potential benefits of staying home, it is important to question why students were put in the position to make that choice in the first place. A major factor, of course, is the rise in COVID-19 cases. The epidemiological situation is critical right now and it has to be taken seriously. Furthermore, considering how COVID-19 disproportionately affects disabled, racialized, and low-income people, individuals should be doing all in their power to curb the spread. However, there is a limit to what individuals can do in the face of a surge as big—and as transmissible—as this one. The Omicron spread comes after months of the Quebec government mishandling the pandemic in many ways, including imposing ineffective curfews and having insufficient testing capabilities. There is little scientific evidence that curfews actually prevent a rise in COVID-19 cases, and yet the Quebec government decided to implement yet another one despite its known toll on mental health and disproportionate impact on other vulnerable communities. Other measures like accessible testing, timely booster shot rollout, and vaccine mandates may have been able to prevent this surge.
Institutions like McGill also have the responsibility of prioritizing the health of their communities. Although McGill has taken the necessary steps to comply with Quebec regulations, it has failed to provide safe and accessible learning environments for immunocompromised and disabled students throughout the pandemic. McGill has only taken steps to provide online alternatives when the government mandates them—but not when students advocate for them. Measures like continuing the S/U option, mandating professors to record lectures, and implementing a university-wide vaccine mandate could make the stress of university during a pandemic more manageable.
Despite the recent end of the curfew and the return to in-person classes, the pandemic is still not over, and neither are its impacts on students’ lives. Universities should not put student’s physical and mental health at risk. McGill should put their students’ interests first and take the necessary steps to make sure that its environment remains safe and accessible to all, no matter what type of instruction the government mandates.