Hundreds to stay in N.S. university residences this summer due to COVID-19

While exams are finished for the spring semester, there are still more than 550 students staying in university residences across Nova Scotia, as restrictions around COVID-19 limit travel in and out of the province.

The schools say that most are international students who feared that returning home might have consequences if the pandemic continues into the fall.

“Some students have stayed because their concern is if they get home, they may not be able to get back to pursue their post-secondary education,” said James Sanford, the executive director for student services at Acadia University. “This is happening across our province.”

Sanford said it’s unusual to have so many students — fewer than 50 at Acadia — in residence over the summer.

Those operating the residences are working to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by moving people out of double rooms, banning visitors from the buildings, ramping up cleaning measures and encouraging physical distancing.

Universities are also offering health supports for those staying on campus.

Staff delivered “mental health care packages” at Dalhousie University last week. The packages included healthy snacks and information on where to find support.

There are also no set dates when students need to move out, given that this is an unusual circumstance.

Emergency funds

But money is top of mind for many.

“Financial concerns are a fairly regular concern for students, COVID or otherwise,” said Matt Robinson, director of housing and conference services at Saint Mary’s University.

Robinson said the university has allowed people to have their summer residence fees stay on their student accounts interest-free for now.

Many universities have also set up emergency relief funds and are accepting donations to help students..

“Many had not planned to be here during this time,” Sanford said. “They had planned to be working. So this is an extraordinary cost for them and something they’re concerned about.”

There are 241 residents in buildings at Saint Mary’s University, which includes family housing units. (Robert Short/CBC)

Sanford said he’s heard some students are also worried about the changing nature of their visa and study permit status, especially when it comes to the financial requirements they are asked to meet. They must prove they can cover their tuition and living expenses.

But he also said because international students make up such a large part of enrolment numbers, universities are worried about how to deal with these issues.

“I think people are working on this on a daily basis to try and be creative, empathetic and compassionate,” about how they can best care for students, Sanford said.

Province letting institutions decide

Mount Saint Vincent University has taken a different approach.

Spokesperson Gillian Batten said there were 33 international students still in residence on April 17, but the International Education Centre helped to move them to off-campus accommodations.

“Given limited on-campus facilities supports and with such a small number remaining, we felt it would be best to relocate remaining students,” Batten said in an email. The residences at MSVU are now empty.

A spokesperson for the Department of Labour and Advanced Education said universities in the province have independently chosen whether to allow international students stay in residence.

“This decision was made based on each student’s individual circumstance. The department is supportive of their decision,” said Carley Sampson in an email.

“We continue to work closely and collaboratively with the institutions and the post-secondary sector, especially during the pandemic, to ensure all students are safe and supported.”

Looking to the fall

Universities are already trying to plan for incoming students in the fall — not an easy task when it’s is unclear what restrictions might remain in Nova Scotia.

“We’re giving that a lot of consideration,” Robinson said of the discussions already happening at SMU.

“The situation is developing almost day by day, hour by hour in some ways.”

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