Back to School under COVID – Interview with Director General John McMahon
It was the moment that many Vanier students were hoping for: going back to in-person learning. For returning and new students, the idea and experience of going back to school under a pandemic can create a mixed bag of emotions. From the excitement of seeing friends and teachers again to fear over catching the virus in the classrooms, here at the Insider, we have asked our own Director-General, John McMahon, about his thoughts and feelings about going back to school on campus, in the hopes of enlightening and reassuring students.
Back to in-person
The idea of going back to in-person learning was a dream for many Vanier students. From new and returning students who have never set foot on campus to those who witnessed first-hand the transition of online college learning, students and staff welcomed the return of in-person learning quasi-unanimously. It included Director-General McMahon, who has been working since last spring on making this dream a reality.
Q: How do you feel about coming back to school this fall, in the time of a pandemic?
A: “We were very pleased when the government confirmed that our plan A, which was to have 100% in-person courses and learning, was a go. We had anticipated that back in the late spring, but it was going to be dependent on how the pandemic was evolving. Once that was confirmed, we were very pleased.”
Q: What was your initial reaction when the government authorized cégeps to be back in person?
A: “My first reaction was that it was positive news because that was our Plan A. That was our number one choice for this fall semester, after 18 months of the pandemic and most students learning from a distance. Our first choice, as long as it was in a safe environment and conducted safely, was to have plan A and in-person activities as well.”
Onions and Orchids
Despite the overwhelming approval of going back to school, there is no denying that many students and staff experienced some ups and downs. We’ve asked DG McMahon what his onions and orchids about this unprecedented back-to-school experience were.
Q: What was the moment that you liked the most about coming back to school?
A: “After 18 months of dealing with the pandemic and having online education, we were finally going to be able to have a normal semester with in-person learning and activities at the cégep where students would have an opportunity to interact with their peers and teachers directly rather than via online.”
Q: Do you think there was something that could have been more improved?
A: “Looking back and saying what could be improved, I think the clarification could have been given sooner for some aspects, for example, the mandatory masks. Initially, it was announced that the masks would not be required when students were seated in classrooms, and we were concerned with that. The government did reserve that decision about a week and a half later, but we were concerned with that initially.”
Q: Do you think, during this pandemic, that the Ministry of Higher Education has been clear and consistent with all the COVID-19 guidelines?
A: “By in-large, [the Ministry of Higher Education] has done a reasonably good job in working with the colleges to communicate what was required and what we would be expected given the circumstances. Yes, there are always things that could be improved, and we have provided that feedback to them. There are instances where consultation prior to a decision would have helped alleviate a decision that needed to be reversed thereafter. Communication can always be improved, but by in-large, the Ministry has done a reasonably good job of working with us to keep everyone safe and also maintain our services to students.”
Vaccination against COVID-19
Despite Canada being one of the top countries with the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate, here in Quebec, the vaccination rate amongst 18-24 years olds is still one of the lowest across the province. As of writing this article, only 71% of that age group were adequately vaccinated against COVID-19, less than the 75%-80% required for herd immunity. For DG McMahon, who has campaigned to get students vaccinated, the population of unvaccinated students and staff is worrying.
Q: One of the biggest messages you have been promoting the most is to get vaccinated. Do you think this message has been getting through students?
A: “I think it’s been getting through to many students, but they’re still some students who have not responded to that message. We know from the data that […] the majority of our students are sufficiently vaccinated, but there’s still work to be done with some other students.”
Q: Are you concerned about the population of Vanier students and staff who have not gotten their two shots yet?
A: “Absolutely, we’re concerned in general terms […] with everyone in the Vanier community who’s not yet vaccinated. We strongly support the health authorities that are advocating for everyone who can get vaccinated. We’ll be continuing to promote that to increase vaccination rates throughout the college in order to keep fighting this pandemic.”
Q: Do you think that vaccines should be mandatory for all Vanier students and staff?
A: “It’s something that I believe will be discussed shortly. It is mandatory in the health sector, and it will be mandatory as of October 15th. It is being discussed in some circles for education. We welcome the discussion. I would support mandatory vaccinations, particularly given the seriousness of this Delta variant and the increase of positivity rates in terms of cases in Montreal and Quebec. I would support it, but it is yet to be discussed.”
COVID hotspot and the fourth-wave
The return to in-person learning in Quebec has worried many in the population that schools, colleges and universities might become COVID-19 hotspots, furthering the rise of a fourth wave. This fourth wave could have the potential of enacting yet another lockdown. We’ve asked the Director-General what he thinks of these hypothetical scenarios.
Q: Are you concerned that Vanier College might become a COVID-19 hotspot?
A: “No, I’m not concerned that Vanier will become a hotspot. In fact, we have had cases here at Vanier since the beginning of the semester, but none of which have been traced to spread here at the college. Students and staff interact out in the community, and all of the tracings thus far have indicated that that spread has occurred in the community. We have very safe measures in place with sanitary measures, including the mandatory mask-wearing, and the compliance for the mask-wearing is quite high.”
Q: With the rise of infection rates across Quebec, are you worried that we might all end up with remote learning once again?
A: “It’s always a concern. Everyone’s concerned that if cases do continue to increase, if the vaccination rates do not get to a point where we can maintain services, there is always a risk of another lockdown, another shutting down of regular services. We are concerned that could occur, but we are prepared [in case of another lockdown], and we will respond to it.”
Q: If we all go back online, do you think Vanier is ready to deal with yet another online semester?
A: “Yes, absolutely. Based on the experience we had during the 18 months, we were successful in making that transition with very little notice, very little preparation. If we were to have to do [revert to online learning], it would be a lot easier for us to do it.”
Challenges, wishes and hopes for this semester
As the semester progressed through uncharted waters, we concluded our interview with the challenges facing Vanier and the wishes and hopes that Director-General McMahon would like to see in the coming weeks and months.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in the next coming weeks and months?
A: “The biggest challenge will be maintaining sufficient levels of safety, keeping control of the number of cases in, not only Vanier, but in Montreal and Quebec, and getting more people vaccinated. The key to getting out of this pandemic is to increase the percentage of the population that is vaccinated.”
Q: Finally, what do you personally wish to see from now until the end of the semester?
A: “My own expectation is that students and staff will continue to respect the safety measures that we have put in place. I would like to see more students who have yet to be vaccinated to make that decision to become vaccinated, in order to keep the entire community safe and maintain plan A; in-person learning here at the college.”
By Jacques Wang