VANCOUVER -- When high school graduates start their post-secondary education this fall, many won't even be setting foot on campus. Because of the pandemic, many classes have been moved online, and that means a very different start to the school year. No frat parties, no frosh, and they could even be stuck living with their parents instead of moving into the dorms.

Schools had to adapt quickly when COVID-19 hit British Columbia in mid-March, switching to online classes and mitigating the risk of spreading the virus. 

"We had this emergency pivot to remote instruction essentially over a weekend," says Simon Bates, associate provost of teaching and learning at UBC. 

Ever since that pivot, the school has been planning what it will do this fall. 

"We have about 5,000 courses that are offered from September to December, so it's clearly a large task, and we wanted to get started on it straight away," Bates says. "The majority of these courses were never designed for fully online distributed delivery."

At Simon Fraser University, Jon Driver, the vice-president of academic, says about 10 per cent of the school's undergraduate credits were already offered online, but that number will jump. 

"We'll probably have at least 95 per cent of our classes online," he says, adding there will still be some classes offered in person. "Likely these will be laboratory classes where there is some experiential learning that takes place in a setting where it's essential that students have hands-on access to equipment."

The British Columbia Institute of Technology has a tougher challenge: reworking trade programs that require hands-on skills training, something that can't be replicated online. 

"They need to actually come to the shops here and do some of the projects so they're familiar with the techniques that are required as part of the trade," says Wayne Hand, the dean of the School for Construction and the Environment. 

A joinery program is already up and running, and carpentry classes are about to start. 

"In the carpentry shop here, this building normally has close to a hundred students in it and we had to do some space planning to figure out how we maintain social distancing of two metres," Hand says. "In this case, it meant we can only deliver sixteen students in this shop whereas (there) was normally a hundred students coming in."

To prepare, the school has built plywood cubicles, done extensive marking of pathways, installed additional handwashing sinks, hired constant cleaners, and each student will have to stick to their own tools. 

And because the school's programs vary, each has to be redesigned individually.

"It's going to be different but the institute is taking a really good approach of giving everybody a heads up in terms of where we're headed and the commitment to maintain the quality of programming," Hand says. 

While students headed into BCIT's trades programs will be going to campus and have some sense of normalcy, both UBC and SFU will face challenges creating the sense of belonging and welcome that is so central to the first year experience. 

"You will still be meeting with your professor," says Driver. "You may meet with them through video-conferencing or on the phone rather than in person. You will still be meeting with other students in your class but, again, this will be done through some kind of chat or video technique."

And, he says, things may not go back to normal until there's a widely available vaccine. 

UBC's Bates says it will be a very different experience for first year students. 

"We're thinking about how we build those communities virtually. What does orientation look like in an online space? What are the things we can do to build some of that connection to peers, to friends, and to the institution?" he wonders.

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