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Hundreds of MUN students call for labs to move online amid ongoing COVID-19 wave


Over 670 Memorial University students have signed a petition to move in-person labs online during the current wave of COVID-19. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Hundreds of Memorial University students have signed a petition asking the school to move in-person labs online, as the current wave of COVID-19 pushes on in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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The university returned to mostly online learning for January as the Omicron wave spread across the province, but did allow for a few key exceptions to that policy — including labs for courses in the Faculty of Science, which are set to take place in-person for the winter semester.

“I’m concerned about in-person labs. I don’t entirely feel that they’re safe,” biology student Kira Whittaker told CBC Radio’s St. John’s Morning Show on Wednesday.

While those labs aren’t scheduled to start until next week, students like Whittaker — who co-organized the petition which had 670 signatures as of Thursday morning — are still worried.

“Myself and other students were emailing MUN faculty looking for answers about the upcoming labs in-person, and no one really seemed to be getting any answers,” Whittaker said. “So we decided to organize and address the faculty as one voice.”

Kira Whittaker says students are concerned for their safety. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Whittaker said MUN’s faculty told students there’s a point where the campus community is going to have to live with COVID-19, and there are prevention measures in place to prevent an outbreak.

But, she said some students disagree. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a plan for handling an outbreak should it occur, and there’s no plan … for academic protection for students required to self-isolate as a result of exposure to COVID-19,” Whittaker said. 

In-person labs going ahead

Florentine Strzelczyk, vice-president academic of MUN, told CBC News the university’s plan is to move ahead with in-person labs where possible and physical distancing allows.

Students and staff will be provided masks to wear upon entry to campus buildings, and are required to keep them on.

“We feel confident that we can give hands-on experiences to students in those labs,” she said.

“Many of the techniques and pieces you learn in a lab can’t just be replicated online. Biochemistry for example, it just cannot be efficiently completed online.”

Strzelczyk said there are also accreditation requirements, meaning there are a certain number hours of hands-on experience required for students to graduate certain programs.

Listen to the full interview with Kira Whittaker:

St John’s Morning Show10:28MUN Labs

We speak with a Memorial University science student who is worried about a return to in-person lab instruction. 10:28

Strzelczyk said other programs where physical distancing cannot be maintained may look at other options for their labs, with the possibility of pushing the lab experience to later in the program.

“It’s our job to do everything we can to get students ready for the world of work and make sure they graduate on time,” Strzelczyk said.

“I think Memorial is very much in line with other universities where those lab experiences will take place in person.”

For students who may miss time because of contracting COVID-19, or isolating because they are a contact of a positive case, Strzelczyk said students will work with their instructors and program directors to figure out a plan. 

Strzelczyk said there are “broad supports” in place through the student life unit and student health and wellness unit for students who may fall ill.

“It’s a duty to accommodate that we always follow when a student cannot make it to class and is ill,” she said.

For those students who are immunocompromised and are worried about their education, Strzelczyk said there’s a process in place to accommodate students with medical issues. 

“We work with students to find alternative [courses], or switch courses around,” she said.

“We work with individual students because, to be honest, every single student’s schedule and trajectory is a little bit different and they get that personalized help.” 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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