Reading Time: 3 minutes

The eagerly anticipated first day of the University of Alberta’s 113th school year will see students welcomed back on campuses for the first time since the pandemic began almost 18 months ago.

Bill Flanagan

Bill Flanagan

“I have been looking forward to the arrival of students with great anticipation,” said U of A president Bill Flanagan. “I know many students are now experiencing student life in person for the first time, while many others are excited to reunite with friends, classmates and favourite spaces on campus.

“Through collective efforts and mutual respect, we will have a successful and safe in-person learning and campus life experience once again. Thank you for supporting one another as we continue to navigate a unique school year.”

The U of A Students’ Union is once again hosting Week of Welcome activities including a pancake breakfast, a club fair in Quad to promote more than 300 student groups, and entertainment events throughout the first two weeks of September.

Students’ Union president Rowan Ley noted that packed orientation tours introducing arriving students to their new campus are a sure sign students can’t wait to begin or continue their university experience.

“After a difficult and stressful year learning online, students are enthusiastic and energized to be back on campus,” said Ley, who has been a student on campus since 2016. “We are happy to help the campus community gather safely for their U of A experience.”

While everyone is eager to get back to a normal campus life, Andrew Sharman, vice-president of facilities and operations and executive lead of the university’s COVID-19 response efforts, said the health and safety of students, faculty and staff remain a top priority.

He said the university will continue its requirement for masks in all indoor common areas; however, masks will not be required in personal office spaces or outdoors unless two-metre physical distancing cannot be maintained.

One noticeable change this year is that the university has instituted a request that every individual coming to campus formally declares their vaccine status. Those who are unwilling to declare their status, or those who are not vaccinated or partially vaccinated, will have to complete regular rapid testing.

Residences welcomed students with a physically distanced Move-In Week and through a host of community activities via Expedition Connect.

Campus & Community Recreation facilities have reopened with enhanced safety measures and will continue to offer virtual classes.

All told, nearly 36,000 students begin the school year with 80 percent of courses being offered in person.

That mix of in-person and online learning is being supported by the U of A’s Office of the Registrar, which launched a new Student Service Centre to provide one point of contact for the information, support and services students need for their university journey. Advisers are offering in-person services along with virtual options, and have already had thousands of interactions with students since opening on August 16.

André Costopoulos, vice-provost and dean of students, whose office is responsible for providing student support services, said although planning for the return has been an immense challenge, the lessons learned over the past year and a half have afforded them a plan that is more sophisticated than an “off switch.”

If the intervening 18 months taught Costopoulos anything, it’s that options are good.

“From a student services perspective, I think we’re better off now. If students want to access a service in person, it’s there in person. If they want it remotely, it is there remotely – they can access all student services from anywhere.”

A new initiative out of the Office of the Dean of Students called Return to Campus: Mental Health and Adjusting Back Together invites students to join the Wellness Supports team virtually to discuss how the university supports mental health and how to return to being in relation with others in ways that are supportive of each other’s boundaries.

Although returning students may see less density of events and more spacing, Costopoulos notes that the goal of his office remains to allow as much creativity and as much activity on the student events side as possible within reasonable safety limits.

“A lot of our time has been spent on the group event side, adding that COVID-19 risk assessment layer,” he said.

“We’re all discovering what university is like now, we’re finding new challenges that we’ve never seen before, and we’re solving them as we go.”

| By Michael Brown

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

© Troy Media
Troy Media is an editorial content provider to media outlets and its own hosted community news outlets across Canada.