U of T provides support to students who must stay in residence during COVID-19 outbreak

Photo of Innis College

Roughly 30 per cent of students have asked to stay on in residence at Innis College, where staff members are committed to taking care of their needs (photo by Diana Tyszko)

The University of Toronto is supporting and caring for students who must stay in residence during the COVID-19 outbreak, while actively assisting students who are trying to make arrangements to go home. 

The university last week requested students who live in residence and are able to return home to do so, taking with them essential items such as laptops, textbooks and material needed to complete their coursework. 

However, students have been told they’re welcome to remain in residence if they are unable to return home – as is the case for some international students, students whose family members are in self-isolation and out-of-province students who need more time to make travel arrangements. 

“The university has asked students to move out of residence where possible to support the public health distancing measures being imposed in the province,” said Sandy Welsh, U of T's vice-provost, students. “However, we understand that many students have exceptional circumstances that require them to continue to call our residences home.  

We want those students who need to stay here to be with us during this challenging time.”

At Innis College Residence, one of nearly a dozen residences on the St. George campus, roughly 30 per cent of students have asked to stay in residence, according to Steve Masse, the college’s dean of students. He says staff are committed to taking care of students' needs. 

“We want students to continue to feel supported throughout these uncertain times,” said Masse. “We continue to make decisions informed by consultations with public health institutions and what we genuinely believe is in students’ best interests.” 

Masse added that students at Innis can continue to rely on critical services such as the building’s 24-hour front desk. “We have had to make some changes with respect to some of the amenities in residence such as our common room and gym facilities,” he said. “Those decisions were aligned with the university’s decision to take spaces offline in order to encourage social distancing.”  

At U of T Scarborough, meanwhile, Student Life is moving first-year programs such as socials and learning opportunities online for the benefit of first-year students living in residence. Exam Jam, a popular event that helps students prepare for final exams and address academic anxiety, could also be moved online. There are opportunities to move recreational events online as well. This Friday, for example, U of T Scarborough’s residence will organize a movie night using a Google Chrome extension that allows people to watch Netflix “together” from the comfort of their own rooms.  

Facilities such as U of T Scarborough’s Health & Wellness Centre, library and International Student Centre continue to operate to support the student body and international students, with social distancing measures and online delivery of services where appropriate. 

At U of T Mississauga, residence don teams are preparing to host community gatherings online to discuss wellness supports and field students' questions and concerns, and are dispensing resources and handouts to help students staying on in residence. 

U of T Mississauga's peer academic leaders (or PALs) – upper-year students who live near first-year residences and are tasked with mentoring students in their academic transition – already held an online workshop last week geared towards computer science students. On Thursday night, the PALs were set to host an online workshop devoted to helping all students stay motivated and create schedules for themselves now that in-person classes have been suspended. 

Kim Cuozzo, residence education co-ordinator at U of T Mississauga, says upper-year student staffers are stepping up to set an example when it comes to coping with the stress and uncertainty brought about by the outbreak. 

“Our student staff are definitely excited at the prospect of still being able to support students,” Cuozzo said. “They're keeping in good spirits to keep others up, modelling calm while also showing that they're ready to take on their classes so that their students can feel that as well.”

Back at Innis, Masse said students have been understanding of the measures, spawned by the extraordinary circumstances brought about by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. 

“The sentiment that I’m hearing from students is that they understand the rationale for the decisions that have been made by the university in the last week or so, and that while they’re inconvenient, they appreciate that they’re in the best interest of the community.” 

Masse added that full-time and student staff alike, whether they’re telecommuting or working in the residence building and office, are determined to help students in their hour of need. 

“A common sentiment regardless of folks’ working arrangements is their commitment and support of students,” said Masse. “Each and every one of us wants to continue to be available to students to support them, particularly as they’re navigating what is admittedly quite a challenging time.” 

Staff are also ready to help Innis students who are departing campus, according to Masse. 

“We’ve been on the phone constantly, engaged in conversations with our residents, talking through travel plans and how we can support them as they’re negotiating what can sometimes be challenging travel arrangements with family, or in terms of co-ordinating pick-ups and acquiring moving equipment and so on,” Masse said.  

Students who leave their residences before their projected departure date are being provided partial refunds, as the university looks to alleviate the financial burden for students already grappling with logistical and emotional challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.  

The university is also providing emergency assistance grants for undergraduate and graduate domestic and international students who need short-term financial relief as a result of unexpected expenses, and is working on ways to support students who will not be able to return home when the term ends. 

Students who experience symptoms while living in residence are asked to self-quarantine themselves and phone their respective residence front desk, who will inform the Dean of Students/Residence Office. Students should also call Telehealth Ontario toll-free at 1-866-797-0000 (TTY: 1-866-797-0007).

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