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Canadian Universities Shut Residences To Curb Coronavirus Spread

"It's just been a very stressful time. But I think they are taking the right precautions."

Students at universities and colleges across Canada are scrambling to move out of their campus residences as those institutions try to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and maximize social distance.

Classes have already moved online and many post-secondary institutions including Ryerson University and Humber College in Toronto, Concordia University in Montreal, and the University of Alberta in Edmonton are asking students to move out. Others, like the University of British Columbia, aren’t mandating students to leave but are asking those who can to do so.

Still, the tight deadlines thrust many students into uncertain and stressful situations.

Ryerson University.
Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images
Ryerson University.

Landon Nesbitt, a first-year student at Ryerson, has a plane ticket to get back home to Edmonton — next week, but he has to get out of residence by Monday afternoon. He said fortunately, several friends have offered him a place to stay in the meantime.

“My plan right now is to kind of put all my stuff in storage somewhere this weekend... That’s kind of my life right now — in my dorm room trying to find somewhere to put all my stuff and not going outside,” Nesbitt said.

The 19-year-old, who is studying performance acting, said only those from other countries or provinces stuck around after university classes were cancelled last week.

Some exceptions

Schools that are closing residences have offered people in exceptional circumstances — such as international students — the ability to apply for an exception to stay. About 50 of those have been granted at Concordia, where there are around 900 students who live in residence. They were given five days’ notice that they had to move out by Sunday.

Patrick Quinn, vice-president of academic and advocacy at Concordia’s student union, said that wasn’t enough time.

“On a human level, you’re telling students that ‘you have to leave in the next 3 to 4 days.’ I would imagine they would feel stressed out, they’d be panicking,” Quinn said. “You have to figure out your living situation for the foreseeable future. That’s scary, especially if you’re a young person between the ages of 17 and 25.”

Jacob Soucy, a B.C. native in the second year of the music program at Humber College, said he appreciated that the administration’s frequent update emails, but the move-out situation evolved rapidly from a strong encouragement to leave on Wednesday to a mandatory order on Thursday.

Jacob Soucy.
Rick Harris
Jacob Soucy.

Soucy, 20, said he felt fortunate because he had intended to stay in Toronto for the summer so he’d already signed a lease that would begin on May 1 and a friend had offered a place to stay for six weeks until he could move into his new home. But he said he had other friends scramble to arrange flights back to B.C. and Alberta at the behest of their parents.

The frustrating situation was affecting his mental health, the 20-year-old said, trying to juggle moving with figuring out how to continue with classes.

“If you were to go back to B.C. and you’re on Pacific Time, you’re waking up early for like Zoom conference calls where you can’t even rehearse with people in person and play music,” he said.

Cameron Carolan, a first-year Ryerson student, said he understood the school’s rationale for asking students to move out, and was lucky that his dad was working from home and available to help get him back to Mississauga, Ont.

“It’s just been a very stressful time. But I think they are taking the right precautions,” he told HuffPost Canada.

“They’re doing the best that they can. It’s a very stressful time for everyone.… I can’t look at it too selfishly. I’m just mainly glad that they are making exceptions for the international students and out-of-province students, because if I was in their shoes right now, I’d be a lot more stressed out.”

“It’s a very difficult time for everyone and people still have that drive to help other people. Honestly, it was great to see that.”

- Cameron Carolan

A positive that had come out of the entire situation was seeing the community rallying to help students who are struggling.

“I saw a lot of people … reaching out and saying if anybody needs a place to stay, their home is open. And I know even in my residence when I was moving out, a lot of people were leaving extra food in the common rooms so the international students don’t have to buy extra stuff. They can just take it,” Carolan said.

“It’s a very difficult time for everyone and people still have that drive to help other people. Honestly, it was great to see that.”

Wilfrid Laurier University told students living in residence on March 16 that they had to be out by the end of March 18. The school said they also offered exceptions for international students, out-of-province students who need extra time to move out, students who live more than five hours away from campus, and students who are self-isolating.

“We appreciate that this decision has caused frustration and distress among some students and parents. We emphasize that our decision was made for the well-being of students and the larger community, and is in line with the general direction of public health officials,” Kevin Crowley, the university’s communication director, told HuffPost Canada in an email.

Most schools are offering partial refunds on residence fees to students that move out within their allotted time frame. Some schools still had cafeterias open for students on meal plans, though others were closing and offering refunds.

Many universities in the U.S. have also forced their students to move out of campus dormitories. Some have offered the empty rooms as contingency hospital beds in case medical facilities become overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

None of the post-secondary institutions in Canada that HuffPost Canada reached out to were aware of any similar backup plans for their residences.

With files from HuffPost Quebec and the Canadian Press

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