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Amid travel curbs, some students stay put for holidays

Residences at the University of Victoria. Photo by ADRIAN LAM/TIMES COLONIST

With British Columbians discouraged from moving around the province amid the pandemic, some post-secondary students are making the decision to stay put instead of heading home for the holidays.

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has issued orders prohibiting social gatherings and strongly discouraged non-essential travel into and within the province. The B.C. government has said welcoming a student home for the winter break is allowed, but students returning home should follow public health orders to socialize only with those in their household. That order is in effect until at least Dec. 7.

For Emmanuella Bassey, a first-year student at the University of Victoria, the travel restrictions made staying put the clear choice. The 17-year-old said she talked it over with her parents, who live in Nigeria, and they decided it was safest for her to stay in Victoria, rather than risk multiple airports and flights to make the trip home.

“It’s a really high risk of getting COVID if I go, so my parents just said I should stay in school,” she said.

It will be her first Christmas away from her parents, but Bassey has family in Victoria she plans to spend the holiday with.

Many of her friends are also sticking around in UVic residences over the winter break, especially those who live out of province or abroad, she said.

PJ Matheson, a first-year student living in residence at UVic, is planning to go home to Maple Ridge for the holidays, as long as stricter orders barring a ferry trip are not introduced. The majority of friends are planning to stay in residence over the holidays, because they live farther away, Matheson said.

UVic students living in residence need to apply in advance to stay in their dorms over the winter break, so the university knows how many people are on campus. Students who do not apply to stay have to move out by Dec. 22, a day after the final exam of the semester.

At Vancouver Island University, students are generally expected to leave residences 48 hours after the last exam. Students wanting to stay have to let the university know by Dec. 1 to allow for meal planning and scheduling of room cleanings. There’s an additional cost of $200.

Grappling with whether to go home for the holidays is just one of many changes for students this year.

Matheson said the first-year experience was not quite what was expected, with capacity limits on common rooms, students assigned to specific bathrooms and showers, and masks required everywhere except in your own room.

One of the hardest parts of starting university during a pandemic has been the dining hall experience, Matheson said. Every student sits alone at a table, which are set two metres apart. “You can’t eat in a group. You have to eat alone. And then if you’re eating with friends, you sort of have to awkwardly turn to look at them.”

With physical-distancing in place, fewer students can fit in the dining hall at once, and many end up bringing their meals back to their rooms to eat, Matheson said.

Despite few in-person classes and a limit of one guest in a dorm room, students have been connecting with classmates and making friends online through chat forums. “Everyone is pretty used to communicating online already. So I don’t think it’s been much of a difference for a lot of people,” Matheson said.