Photo By: Brock University

Monday, September 13 was the first day of school on campus. In some ways, it was the same as any other. Students grumbled about having to get up early for 9 a.m. classes, someone got lost in Mackenzie Chown and the line for the Tim Hortons’ stretched down the hallway and around the corner. 

Walking into class was normal and strange at the same time, as students and staff alike were on-campus, together for the first time in over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns that sent Brock into an online delivery model.

“I think it felt kind of surreal,” said Miria Pelletier, a fourth-year concurrent education major and current president of the Brock University Historical Society (BUHS). “It’s so weird, coming back to campus and seeing people that you’ve had classes with but you’ve never actually met.”

“It was exciting, but also a little anxiety provoking,” said Luke Huffman, a fourth-year dramatic arts major with a minor in film. 

After 18 months of lectures on Microsoft Teams and forum posts instead of seminar discussions, it’s become clear that the experience of learning on-campus and in the classroom is a valuable one, and one that most people are glad to finally have back. 

“I’ve been sitting in an office in an empty building for a year-and-a-half so to suddenly see the place alive with students, people moving into residence, people going to class, people going to the library, people buying Tim Hortons’ coffee, it feels like a university should,” said Dr. Lynn Wells, Brock University interim president. 

William Ord, a sport management student in his fourth and final year at Brock noticed how eager his classmates were to be back in class. 8 a.m. lectures had always been sparsely attended, but according to Ord, in his very first class on the first day, students turned up bright and early. 

“In the past some people may have said, ‘okay, I’ve overslept, that’s okay, maybe the slides are gonna be on Sakai and I can catch up there,’ but now we’ve seen option B and how that transpires and for most people, that doesn’t bode well for a good learning environment,” said Ord. 

In August, Brock announced that in order to be on campus, all staff, students, visitors and guests would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. There were policies and procedures that needed to be considered and clarified before students returned to campus and the summer was spent doing just that. 

Proof of vaccination had to be uploaded and sent to the university, and then every single upload was legitimately verified, meaning that a real person opened the submissions to make sure that the documentation provided was legitimate. 

According to the university, 95 per cent of on-campus stuents are vaccinated and of that number, 92 per cent are fully vaccinated (the remaining 8 per cent are between doses). For people in between their first and second dose or those who have been granted an exemption, there is an antigen screening and testing process in place. Others are not permitted to be on campus. 

On September 1, Brock received clearance from the provincial government to move ahead without physical distancing or capacity limits in instructional spaces. Masks continue to be required when indoors for all students, staff and faculty members who are in public spaces however. 

“I feel like everyone is just kind of more aware, in general,” said Pelletier. 

Students in their first few classes have generally seemed more cautious of what they touch, whether they have their masks on properly and how many people they’re sitting close to. 

“I think for the most part, a lot of people just seem happy to be back, so most people are okay with wearing masks and taking those extra precautions to be safe,” said Pelletier. 

This was a sentiment echoed by Ord and Huffman as well. Wearing a mask can be a hindrance, it can muffle speech and make it hard to read someone’s facial expression, but if the alternative is ending up with a COVID-19 outbreak that sends them back to online classes, then most will gladly put one on before they walk inside.

“It almost feels like something out of a movie, but this time it’s real,” said Ord, “but regardless of how we view it, it’s a tiny sacrifice to get back to in-person learning again.”

Big picture things like getting students vaccinated and figuring out policy around things like masking and distancing were important when it came to getting students back on-campus safely. There were also smaller things that had to be considered as the first day of school approached. 

Simple questions from “How do I teach in a mask?” to “Do I have to wipe down this piece of equipment?” to “How can I tell if my students are engaged if I can’t see their faces?” were on instructors’ minds as they got back into their classrooms. 

As the associate vice-provost, teaching and learning, Dr. Madelyn Law oversees the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation (CPI). As the university was sorting through vaccination requirements and physical distancing policy, these simple questions were on her mind. Dr. Law is used to helping instructors develop courses, come up with new ideas and use educational technologies like Sakai and Microsoft Teams. 

In the last year, a big focus on educational technology was required in order to deliver course content. That focus remains as some courses retain online elements, or indeed remain fully online. 

Brock has introduced Hyflex classrooms which allow a certain number of students to be in person and a certain number of students to be online, all receiving the same instruction at the same time. Logistically, Dr. Law and the CPI have also been advising faculty on simple things like leaving their offices a little earlier than they’re used to, being understanding when students arrive a few minutes late to class and instructing the students closest to the door to exit classrooms and lecture halls before those near the front of the class. 

Some instructors have also been given headsets which they can connect to sound systems in order to amplify their voices so that they can be heard by their students. 

“For three hour lectures you can’t yell through a mask, so we were able to get all of those things for professors to support them,” said Dr. Law. 

The pandemic forced instructors to learn very quickly how to deliver a course online and they worked with CPI to do that effectively. Students don’t all hate online courses inherently, in fact, sometimes online options can be more convenient than in-person ones. 

In addition to studying history and leading the BUHS, Pelletier has also begun working as a peer facilitator with A-to-Z Learning Services. 

“The workshops we’re hosting are all online as of right now,” said Pelletier. “For the workshops that I lead, the engagement online is actually really great. Sometimes it’s easier for students just to pop on and join online.”

“I think there are some classes that don’t necessarily need to be in person,” said Huffman. “Like for DART or anything practical, it would probably have to be in person, but I took a film course last year and I was completely fine with it. I also found that take-home exams, for me, were a lot easier because I hate exams. I don’t like them even conceptually, so it was nice to be able to have an exam and take it at my own pace and then just get it in.”

Students in less hands-on courses might have found that their course content translated particularly well to an online learning model. According to Pelletier, some professors gave out a lot more small assignments than they would have had they been in-person and that came with its own challenges and difficulties, but on the whole it was the best option given the circumstances.

Being online allowed Pelletier to stay home and minimize interactions to better avoid coming into contact with COVID-19.

“I didn’t really mind learning online, I think I just got used to it and actually, I did really well online,” said Pelletier, “I don’t mind having a couple online classes, but I don’t know if it replaces in person classes now that I’m [in St. Catharines].”

However convenient online options are, one thing is clear: the isolation that came along with 18 months of being almost entirely online took a toll on everybody. 

“We’re social beings and we need to interact with other humans and just doing it through a little box on a screen is not really the thing,” said Dr. Wells. 

Small moments like being able to catch up with peers outside of a lecture hall, meeting a friend for lunch, or sitting in an office chatting with colleagues about weekend plans are things that may have been taken for granted before March 2020. They certainly weren’t taken for granted in the first week of school.  

“There were a few people who were close to me that I saw from time to time while we were online, but there are some people I haven’t seen for a good year and a half, so being able to connect with them is awesome,” said Ord. 

“[The thing that I’ve missed] is just seeing my friends,” said Huffman. 

“It’s just those coincidental bump-ins, right?” said Dr. Law. “There were a few times this week where I saw a few students and you could just tell that they were completely lost and it felt so great to be able to be like, ‘well, I’ll just walk you to your classroom!’ so I walked something like 10 students to their classrooms and I got to say ‘hey, welcome to Brock,’ and things like that.”

There was a buzz on campus for the first week of school, but apprehension still hung overhead. With so much excitement about being back on campus, there was also fear that it could be taken away once again. 

Dr. Wells does have the authority to move classes online quickly if the university were to ever be in a situation where that is required, but she can’t see that happening unless a province-imposed lockdown forces such a move. 

“We hope we don’t have to do that, and if we do have to do it, it will be for a very brief time,” said Dr. Wells. 

Both Dr. Wells and Dr. Law stressed the importance of being adaptable and flexible over the next few weeks, months and into the winter term. Inevitably, things will come up that hadn’t been planned for and solutions will need to be found. 

“There are going to be things that come up and you’re like, ‘ugh I hadn’t thought about that, okay how do we fix that and how do we make sure that we support our students and instructors,’” said Dr. Law. “We as Brock and leaders need to be nimble and flexible in the way that we respond so that we can make sure things are okay for students.”

“It should be business as usual with the understanding that things are not quite usual in the way that they used to be,” said Dr. Wells. 

There are 15,000 students with at least a partial on-campus component to their course schedule for the fall term. Students are once again able to set their laptops up in the Guernsey Market dining hall to study while they eat lunch, library study space is once again available. There are also stickers on the floor reminding people in the hallways to keep two metres apart, bottles of hand sanitizer are ubiquitous and you can’t open a door without coming face to face with a bright red poster reminding you to put on your mask. Things aren’t back to normal, but they’re about as close as they can get. 

There will be ups and there will be downs, but Brock remains committed to staying in-person and on-campus for as long as it is safe to do so, which should be at least somewhat reassuring.