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Why Experts Care About Students Returning to Dorms Amid COVID-19

As Ontario Universities and Colleges Prepare for Tens of Thousands of Students to Return to Dorms next week, some health experts are concerned that the safety protocols that schools have put in place may not be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

That's not just because residences pose challenges similar to other congregational living situations, according to Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

"As much as universities have rules, there will be an element of wanting to socialize and interact with people," he said.

"Striking that balance can be challenging."

That social aspect of college life is precisely why freshman Cheng Xueqiong initially chose to live in residence.

"I'm looking forward to it, but I'm also worried," said Cheng, who studies bakery and pastry at George Brown College in Toronto.

At this time, the 22-year-old lives in a house and has limited contact with others, but is concerned about living closer to other students.

"We still have to share the oven and the laundry room," he told CBC Toronto.

1 student per classroom

Like many schools, George Brown has implemented security protocols designed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as students return to campus.

They include:

  • Amazing move-in dates.
  • Limiting the occupancy to one student per suite / room.
  • Virtual realization of many welcome week activities

If someone gets sick, George Brown has dedicated a floor in his residence for students who need to isolate themselves.

Keeping Students Safe

Other postsecondary schools, such as Ryerson University in Toronto, are limiting access for guests, while residential cafeterias at the University of Toronto focus on takeout.

The University of Guelph has decided to allow only international students and those facing special circumstances, such as limited Internet access at home, to live on campus.

Both while trying to limit contact, that it will keep happening. – Ashleigh Tuite, University of Toronto

The University of York has mandated masks for all common areas on campus, including common areas in residences and academic and administrative buildings.

At the University of British Columbia, officials have closed common spaces or removed seating from those areas.

Despite these measures, Tuite said that there are circumstances beyond the control of the schools.

"You are on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. You have people who want to go out. They live in closed places," he said.

Epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says that the best way to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools is to make sure the number of cases is low before they reopen. (Nick Iwanyshyn / University of Toronto)

"No matter how hard you try to limit contact, that will continue to happen."

He warned that college and university students spread the virus more easily and get sicker than young children. Recent research suggests that children over the age of 10 can transmit COVID-19 as easily as adults.

Tuite noted that many US universities are testing students regularly and suggested that Canadian schools might consider doing the same "to really understand what is happening in the communities."

'They need to own their behavior'

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician at the University Health Network and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, said that several measures could help slow the spread of the virus among post-secondary students.

"Masks in common areas, hand hygiene centers, and physical distancing reminders or protocols will be helpful," he told CBC Toronto in an email. But Bogoch agreed with Tuite that keeping students apart will be a challenge.

"I think adherence to physical distancing in a bedroom setting can be a problem."

Chris McGrath, vice-president for student success at George Brown College, says the school will have fewer students living in residence. (George Brown College)

For Chris McGrath, vice president of student success at George Brown, a large part of the responsibility falls on students to fulfill choices. He said that a residence is like any situation of collective life, like a condominium or apartment.

"[Residents] they are in elevators with masks. They move through the corridors with masks," he said.

"He's really giving our students the importance they need to own their own behavior and protect themselves to protect their community."

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