After one last-blast farewell party the previous night at the UNBC student residence, Ty Cloarec said goodbye to some of his university friends as they loaded up their belongings in the parking lot Saturday morning.
The 18-year-old first-year wildlife and fisheries management student was among the 522 students living in the two residence buildings who received a soft eviction notice last week due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus and he was heading back to his parents’ home 45 minutes away near Ness Lake.
“We’ve been told that moving out would be the best because it would decrease our chance of getting infected,” said Cloarec. “Some people are worried about it.
“A lot of people have already moved out, I’d say there’s about an eighth left here.”
While they have been encouraged to leave to protect their own safety, it is not compulsory and students are still allowed to finish the term living in the residence. That’s reassuring for international students, most of whom can’t return to their home countries with international flights canceled and borders closed.
UNBC announced last weekend the end of face-to-face learning from instructors and that took effect on Thursday. Professors now use online software that allows them to deliver lectures either live or on demand for students to download. Students are using electronic audio/video setups to present term papers or projects and they receive new assignments and submit reports through email.
Although students are no longer gathering in classrooms with their instructors, alternate testing procedures will be available using online tools which will allow non-face-to-face exams. It will be left up the instructors and the department chairs what teaching methods and assessment tools will be used. In some subjects, students facing final exams that would normally be worth 30 or 40 per cent of final grades will instead be given open-book tests combined with assignments which count for only five or 10 per cent of the course grade. Marks from assignments will carry more weight in determining grades. That news came as a huge relief to Cloarec, whose biggest worry this semester was what he thought was coming his way during the April 14-24 exam period.
“(Going to online instruction) changed all my midterms and finals into open-book exams,” he said. “That took a lot of pressure off and increased my grades. I thought finals would be the hardest part.”
Cloarec went through a similar experience in December after the two-week faculty strike. The strike ended just before the Christmas break and instructors had no time for final exams at the end of the term. Cloarec said he helped himself by completing all his required assignments for his five subjects early this term, which left him with just one biology lab exam, which likely won’t happen.
“No finals last year and open-book this year – that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “After the strike, it was super-easy because I didn’t have to do finals and I thought this year was going to be so much harder. I was praying for this to happen. Not the virus, but easier exams.”
With students and instructors no longer interacting directly on campus, lab activities have for the most part been canceled, but interview sessions to test what was learned in lab sessions will be ongoing. Some instructors will base their assessments on phone interviews.
Aman Yadav, 19, who came to Prince George in January from Indore, India for UNBC’s economics/international and global studies program, says there’s no way to replicate online the labs he would have had in his first semester. His final exam in history has been converted into a project he will submit online.
“Everything is online because there is no other choice,” Yadav said. “Online is not much effective and (students) are not able to interact with teachers and we need that interaction. Economics is a social science so we need more interaction, so it’s very hard for us to communicate with our teacher.
“But we have to deal with that. This is the best alternative.”
Gurleen Bajwa, a first-year computer science student from India, plans to stay at the residence until the end of April and will have to find a place to live in the city until the fall term starts in September. She welcomed the switch to online instruction only using the Blackboard Learn software, which gives her the freedom to plan her study time around her own schedule.
“I think this way of studying is way better than going to classes,” said Bajwa. “You are in your comfortable space in your room and can study there and look through lectures later on if you miss anything because it’s live and it’s recorded. If you didn’t get it once you can see it again through the recording.”
“It’s better, because the students are communicating more with their professors. You have to communicate because they give you updates and I think these changes are benefiting the professors as well. In a class of 100 students you don’t expect the professor to know the name of each and every student but now they do because he is chatting with them personally.”
Bajwa is fluent in English but not all international students are, so having lectures delivered online helps break down language barriers for some students, who might be reluctant to ask questions in a classroom setting. Now they just can type their questions for personal feedback from their instructors.
Bajwa is from Rampur in northern India, a city of about 100,000 near the capital, Delhi. She arrived last May and like Cloarec had to endure the uncertainty brought on by the faculty strike in her first semester.
“People have mixed reactions to the situation; they are happy because the classes are online and there are no strict deadlines and there is less weight on the final exams and with more focus on assignments,” said Bajwa.
“But they’re sad because this has been happening for two semesters in a row that we are not able to get our finals and it’s not like a normal student life.”
The student cafeteria remains open as per normal school hours but food is no longer served buffet-style and instead is served by staff. The Northern Sport Centre closed earlier this week, and Bajwa can no longer use the weight room, fieldhouse or gym or can’t take part in the exercise programs she was involved in.
“There’s barely anybody here now,” she said. “They strongly recommended for us to leave the rez but we international students don’t really have any place to go and I think this is safer than going into town. I don’t think the school is going to open for the summer semester because they stopped the registration as soon as the school closed.”
Bajwa, 19, had an internship lined up in San Jose, Calif., but that won’t happen with the Canada-U.S. border now closed. She’s worried about the COVID-19 outbreak getting a lot worse in her home country, where her younger brother, parents and grandmother live.
“It’s so bad in the U.S. right now and people in India are saying we will have the same conditions as the U.S. maybe in two weeks,” she said. “The cases are increasing so fast because we also have a large density of people, so if it gets to one person it’s going to spread to more people.”
Yadav plans to remain living at the residence until the end of April. He’s convinced that with all the precautions in place and the fact most people aware of the threat of COVID-19 and how it is spread he’s now in one of the safest parts of the province.
“It’s away from Vancouver and there is not day-to-day communication from Vancouver to here so I don’t think Prince George will be affected severely,” he said. “It will be a great place as compared with other places.”