Opinions

It just takes one infected student to start a COVID-19 outbreak in a residence. Photo: Ryan Pepper/Fulcrum

Defy the conventional and stay home this year!

It is widely understood that the 2020-21 school year will be a school year like no other for the University of Ottawa community due to COVID-19. For the first time in its storied history, the university will offer the majority of its courses online this fall, meaning the presence of most students on campus is not necessary.

Financially for most students, this is great news as they won’t have to rent an apartment or live in residence this coming semester, saving thousands of dollars. However, it is quite a disappointment for incoming first-year students who wished to live in residence and experience “res life” as their predecessors did.

While a large number of incoming students have accepted the reality that their first year will be much different from other students at the U of O and made the logical decision to stay home, some are still determined to live in residence because they believe they are entitled to the so-called ‘full university experience.’ 

Before we go any further, let us be clear, we are not speaking of students who are faced with challenges at home that make living on campus necessary.

We’re just asking all those who have the option to stay home, to take it. Here’s why. 

Housing Service Guidelines 

Let’s start with the new COVID-19 guidelines the university’s Housing Service (HS) has put in place to protect students in residence. Although these guidelines in theory could protect students from a COVID-19 outbreak in residence, the onus falls on students to respect the guidelines since they are for the most part unenforceable. It is a scary thought to entrust students in their late teens with varying levels of maturity in a communal setting during a pandemic with the responsibility of respecting numerous stringent COVID-19 guidelines.

The guidelines rest solely on HS’ belief that students are responsible enough to self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and report any encounters with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 to HS immediately. If a student in residence reports developing symptoms of COVID-19 they will be forced to self-isolate and if they have a roommate, the roommate will also be required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Students in theory are only allowed to interact not socially distanced with the 10 members of their social circle. This realistically is unenforceable. As for leaving residences, students will only be allowed to leave to visit folks in their social circles such as their family. Once again, this is unenforceable and a recipe for disaster as a large number of students will be leaving for other provinces such as Quebec where social circles are not observed. 

One student who ignores flu-like symptoms and does not observe social distance could cause an outbreak in a residence. An outbreak that could stretch far beyond their residence, putting in danger not only other students but residents of close-by Ottawa neighborhoods and frontline workers.

Finally, it’s important to note that if the COVID-19 situation were to worsen in Ottawa this fall, students could be abruptly asked to move out of their residence.

Immunocompromised students

The U of O’s says on its website that “immunocompromised students must make the best decisions for their own health.” 

For students who are immunocompromised, living in residence should not even be an option. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) people with underlying conditions that contract COVID-19 are six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times more likely to die from the virus than people who do not present any underlying conditions.

The vast majority of immunocompromised students who face known underlying conditions understand this and will stay home in the fall — which is the right decision. However, a number of students who may not know they are immunocompromised may ignore their underlying condition and still live in residence. 

Underlying conditions that can increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

International students and the “Rideau Package” 

Upholding the U of O’s long-standing unofficial motto that international students are nothing but “cash cows,”  Housing Services will offer students a 14-day quarantine “package” until Sept. 23  for an exorbitant $1,374.28 per person. 

For $1,374.28 (tax included, important to specify), international students get to stay in a luxurious hotel in the heart of Ottawa, with three 3-course meals and a view on the Rideau Canal…

Oh, wait, nevermind.

They get to live in the U of O’s Rideau residence, in a room by themselves for 14 days, with a security guard patrolling the halls and three meals delivered into one at 10 a.m. each morning. This is basically the equivalent of paying for a 14-day prison sentence. 

It isn’t only international students that are faced with expensive quarantines, housing services own Community Advisors (CA’s) are offered the package and forced to quarantine at a cost. 

This quarantine may also have negative consequences for students’ mental health as they will be stuck alone in a small room for fourteen days.   

Privacy concerns 

Moving on, we urge students who desire to live in residence and can stay home to read section 1, line 1.25 of the Residence Agreement. 

In short, line 1.25 states that in accordance with both the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) of Ontario and with University Policy 90, students living in residence will have their personal information collected under the authority of the University of Ottawa Act, 1965.

This data according to line 1.25 is collected in part to “address safety, security, disciplinary, behavioural or health issues that may arise in residence.” 

HS also states that it uses the services of a third‐party provider to store some students living in residences’ personal information on their server located in Canada. 

Some of this personal information may be shared with other departments within the University for purposes consistent with University Policy 90 (such as Protection Services and SASS).

When HS refers to students’ personal information in its Residence Agreement, it is not alluding to the use of your name and email address, but rather to the data it collects through a third-party online data collecting platform called eRezLife. With written consent from students their information can also be shared third-party service providers (such as fridge rental, cable, and Internet providers).

This data, in theory, includes data collected from residents’ interactions with CA’s, Protection Services, and SASS. CA’s are instructed by HS to write down all interactions they have with students, which can range from a simple “how’s it going” to a seemingly deep private conversation a student may have with their CA on their mental health. These interactions are written in the student’s file and can be accessed by the HS administration, Protection Services, and SASS. Although some CA’s may warn their residents, some don’t. 

The use of this third-party provider should concern any student who lived and is planning to live in residence.

Alternatives

For most students, the best alternative is to stay home with their family and respect all their local public health guidelines. Although learning online will be a challenge, services such as SASS will be available to help and accommodate students online.

Students who need counselling will also be available through SASS online.

Coming back to residences, if students need to be in Ottawa and are willing to live with roommates they can look for places in Sandy Hill, Centretown, and other neighbourhoods in Ottawa. In most cases, students will pay less with a private landlord than in residence. Students, however, need to be careful when looking for a place to rent in Ottawa and should be aware of the different housing scams. 

However, there will still be students who will be forced for a number of reasons to live in residence for those students we beg you – please accept that the 2020-21 school year will defy the conventional and respect all the guidelines to not only keep yourself safe from COVID-19 but the rest of the U of O community. 

Finally, if any of these reasons resonated with you, but you already booked a room, don’t worry. There is still time to decline your residence offer from the university. In fact, you have until Aug.15 to cancel your 2020-2021 reservations and receive a full refund. 

Editorials are written by the Fulcrum’s fourteen-person editorial board and express the opinion of the board. To share your own views, email editor@thefulcrum.ca 

Editor’s note: The Editorial was updated on Aug.12 at 1:50 p.m. due to new and clearer information recieved by the Fulcrum in an interview with Rachelle Clark the Director Wellness and Recreation Sector, Student Life of the University of Ottawa.