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The info session was hosted in Tabaret Hall. Photo: Jaclyn McRae Sadik/The Fulcrum

Students inquired about travelling back home, online semester

As the University of Ottawa prepares to move the semester online on Wednesday due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration held an information session for international students on Monday to answer questions during the period of uncertainty.

“You understood that it’s important to cooperate. But we also understand that you might feel isolated,” said U of O president Jacques Frémont at the session in Tabaret Hall, which was live-streamed by more than 330 students.

“We’re here to listen, to explain, to give answers to many of the questions you might have. And also, (this) will go on as long as the crisis will last,” said Frémont.

Can international students travel back home?

Several students had asked in the live-stream chat if they were able to travel back home.

“Yes, you can leave Canada if you found a safe flight and safe travel,” said Adel El Zaïm, the U of O’s chief internationalization officer.

“But consider something: courses will continue online by video, over what we call distance learning. The university is not closing,” said El Zaïm. “You need to consider if you can take courses, participate in the assignments and the exams online.”

Earlier that day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada is shutting down its borders to non-Canadians, with the exception of citizens from the United States.

International students who are unable to fly back home will be accommodated in the school’s residence buildings, according to vice-provost of academic affairs Aline Germain-Rutherford.

“We have rooms in residences, and we will keep those residences open if needed,” said Germain-Rutherford. “If the students have to stay also during the summer, we have and we’ll make sure that we have places in the residences to have the students on campus.”

How will the online semester work?

Students also had questions regarding the online semester, and what the process of writing exams will look like.

“The university will be working to ensure that students not be penalized academically by this very unusual circumstance,” said Jill Scott, the provost and vice-president of academic affairs. “We don’t have all of the answers, but we do know that flexibility is going to be very important and so we ask for your patience.”

Germain-Rutherford said that the administration is working with professors to offer alternatives to written exams, such as projects or assignments.

“Some professors will offer projects that can be then submitted online on the platform Brightspace. If there is a problem because of firewalls or VPN not being able to function, of course, the professors will have an opportunity to propose another type of assignment,” she said.

Germain-Rutherford added that systems are being put in place that will allow students to access academic resources online, such as mentors or tutors. 

“Not only will you have your courses online, but you will also have access to mentors through either emails, through video conferencing —  different means that we are setting together,” she said.

She added that a similar system is being developed that will allow students to access the school’s counselling services.

What happens if I contract COVID-19?

An international student asked if they are covered by any health insurance offered by the school in the event that they contract COVID-19.

“All international students on campus are covered by the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP) program,” said Alain Lagacé, the administration manager at the school’s international office.

“With the UHIP program, you are covered with all medical acts,” said Lagacé. “That means that when you go see your doctor, UHIP covers all the medical acts like any other sickness or illness that you would have.”

What about my spring and summer courses?

The spring/summer term —  which starts at the beginning of May and ends in late August —  will not be cancelled, according to Scott.

“Students are encouraged to register in those courses. With respect to the format, the situation has been changing so rapidly,” she said. “I think we’re not in a position to say whether those will be in person or in distance formats or online formats.”

What about my convocation?

Spring convocations begin in June, but Scott said that it’s still uncertain if those ceremonies will take place.

“At this point, we would love to think that we’ll be able to do a wonderful celebration in June in person,’ said Scott. “I think it’s too early to say we’re going to be of course monitoring the public health guidelines and making decisions accordingly.”

The status of COVID-19 in Ottawa

As of Tuesday, there are still no confirmed cases of the virus in the U of O community, but there are 13 positive cases in the city. However, Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches says “there could now be hundreds to even a thousand cases in the community now.”

Etches is recommending people to limit non-essential trips out of the home, while premier Doug Ford has declared a state of emergency.

Across the province, there are at least 180 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, with five labelled as resolved. There have been at least 424 confirmed cases of the virus in Canada.

COVID-19 has infected more than 183,000 people and killed over 7,100 globally since emerging in China in December 2019.

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