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Ontario universities plow ahead with in-person exams amid COVID surge

July 11, 2022

Original Article:

Professor Ryan Gregory doesn’t understand why universities are holding in-person final exams as COVID-19 cases soar amid the province’s sixth wave.

“Timed sit-down exams are already stressful under the best of circumstances and right now there’s a surge. So on top of that, students have to also worry about getting sick,” said Gregory, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Guelph.

“Students are experiencing enormous stress. They would not be incorrect to be concerned about being piled into a room with hundreds of other students and sitting there to write multiple exams and then having to go home to their communities with their families who might be vulnerable.”

Several post-secondary institutions across Ontario are proceeding with in-person final exams in April for the end of the 2021-2022 school year, despite the province reporting record-breaking numbers of COVID cases in recent days. Ontario is now seeing an estimated 100,000 new COVID infections per day, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

As the Omicron wave hit in December, many Ontario universities, including the University of Toronto, had cancelled in-person exams and delayed in-person classes. Since then, universities have largely returned to in-person learning.

The Star reached out to eight universities in Ontario and all are holding in-person final exams in April, including U of T, Guelph, Western University, Trent University, York University, McMaster University, Ryerson University and Queen’s University. Universities said they are prioritizing the health and safety of their communities and that COVID measures including mask and vaccine mandates remain in place.

Western did not mention an option to take exams remotely. Trent said 80 per cent of exams are scheduled to be held in person, while McMaster said 75 per cent will be administered in person

U of T, Guelph, Queen’s and York said exams are proceeding both in-person and online, depending on the course.

Many students going into exams this month are concerned about the spread of the virus and the possibility they might catch it in an exam room as case counts continue to increase.

Ziyana Kotadia, vice president of university affairs for Western’s University Students’ Council, said student concerns have been raised to the university, especially as many have contracted the illness in recent weeks.

“We have been hearing from students in a variety of disciplines about their concerns with exams being held in-person given the effects the current wave of COVID-19 is having on our student body,” Kotadia said.

“Many of our students are sick with COVID or are a close contact for someone who is, and as such we are concerned about how an in-person exam period will affect the health of our student body and exacerbate the potential for transmission.”

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance said it has been advocating that institutions operating in-person exams ensure adequate health and safety measures, including physical distancing and masking.

“Even though vaccinations have been mandated in universities across Ontario, the pandemic is ongoing, and students should feel comfortable accessing physical spaces on campus,” OUSA said in an email.

Gregory said while having a remote option might help alleviate anxiety, he still questions how precise the assessment is given the stress and mental toll of the pandemic.

“The question for me is whether the marks will even be accurate given the circumstances and the strain of the pandemic. Are we actually assessing student learning? I don’t want to assess how well a student can tolerate stress in a pandemic” Gregory said.

“We really should be empathetic and flexible moving forward and take student anxiety seriously and be willing to look past tradition in our assessments and try to consider what it is we actually want to assess.”


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