Will post-secondary students actually be heading back to class?

Rumours are swirling that Doug Ford’s government is getting cold feet due to the fourth wave — and that could mean changes to fall plans
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 27, 2021
Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop became Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities in June 2021. (Steve Russell/CP)



There’s been a great deal of attention paid to the 2 million elementary and secondary students in Ontario who are wondering how safe their schools are going to be when they (apparently) return to the classroom next month. And justifiably so. 

But let’s not forget the half a million students who attend Ontario’s 22 universities or the more than 275,000 students who hope to go to the province’s 24 colleges of applied arts and technology. They, too, suffered, to say the least, through a suboptimal past year because of COVID-19 closures and are no doubt anxious to get back into their classrooms next month. 

Ever since the pandemic hit in March 2020, post-secondary institutions have been trying to figure out how to make their campuses safe again so that students can have the educational experience for which they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars. 

On July 16, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities sent a memo to all 46 institutions, telling them a return to full, in-person learning was a go for this fall. The deputy minister explicitly stated that, if vaccination uptake and progress against COVID-19 were to continue — admittedly, a rather large loophole — “all in person instruction and on campus activities … would be permitted to resume without capacity limits or physical distancing requirements.” 

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The institutions have planned accordingly; some in recent days have announced requirements for proof of immunization before students can come to campus. 

However, last week, rumours started swirling that the government was getting cold feet due to the increasingly virulent nature of the fourth wave. I’ve heard from a well-placed source in the sector (who is not authorized to speak on the record) that, next Wednesday, the Ontario cabinet will take up the issue again, potentially with a view to imposing a two-metre distance between students in all post-secondary classrooms. If the government changes its mind and this becomes the new norm, in-person learning would bite the dust again, and back online the students would go, since few if any of the institutions would have the space to accommodate such physical distancing. 

Premier Doug Ford has apparently assured some of the post-secondary sector’s leaders that they needn’t worry, that he and Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop are still committed to in-class learning, given the precautions the sector has taken. 

However, “Now, we find out that cabinet is split over this,” my source says. “Their plan is to decide at next Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, by which time 200,000 Ontario students will have arrived on campus.” 

If cabinet intends to overturn the premier and the minister’s current position, the howls from parents, students, professors, instructors, administrators — well, the list goes on and on — would presumably be intense. 

“If we are to wait until COVID-19 is defeated, we are looking at another lost year at least,” my source says.

The province’s own numbers show that more than 74 per cent of Ontarians aged 18 to 29 have received one shot and that 63 per cent have been double-vaxxed. That is the predominant age of post-secondary attendees. Almost 80 per cent of Ontarians aged 50 to 59 have both their shots — and that’s presumably the demographic of most of the professors, instructors, and administrators in the sector. 

“If that isn’t enough to reopen, why have we bothered?” my source asks. “This will play right into the hands of the anti-vaxxers.” 

At a virtual news conference Thursday morning, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca asked the premier to mount a Monday-morning “summit,” which all the province’s political party leaders and policy experts would attend, in hopes of taking a “Team Ontario” approach to resolving this issue, as well as the matter of vaccine mandates and certificates. 

“[It’s] critically important so we can all be on the same page,” Del Duca said in answer to my question about this issue. “One, because we actually want to produce an effective solution for dealing with the fourth wave of COVID. But number two, so we can give students on campuses and their families and those who work on campuses peace of mind about what to expect this fall.” 

Del Duca has made the call for a Team Ontario approach to fighting COVID-19 before, but the government has rejected the suggestion. 

(In fairness, I can think of few majority governments that would take advice from a party leader who doesn’t have a seat in the legislature and whose party isn’t an officially constituted party at Queen’s Park. Having said that, I’ve written in the past that any government that truly wants to present a united front to the public ought to consider sharing the microphone with the opposition, a suggestion that might be particularly timely given that the premier hasn’t held a news conference in almost a month.)  

At the moment, the government continues to urge as many students and faculty as possible to get the jab. According to Scott Clark, press secretary to the colleges and universities minister, “The guidelines we provided to the post-secondary sector have not changed.” However, Clark added Thursday: “Further information will be available in the coming days.” 

So it sounds as if the government may not yet have offered the last word on this issue. If that’s the case, the fates of three-quarters of a million students — not to mention all the accompanying staff — could be hanging on the outcome of next Wednesday’s cabinet meeting. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of a memo from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. TVO.org regrets the error.

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