Montreal universities

How Montreal universities are handling the return of students

We spoke to the McGill and Concordia student unions about campus concerns and striving for some normalcy.

This year, students have more on their minds than the stress of buying expensive textbooks and finding the right room in time for class. As Montreal universities return to in-person learning for the first time since March 2020 with the pandemic still underway, a whole host of other stressors have been added to the mix. 

“This year, we don’t know what to expect from school,” says Darshan Daryanani, president of the Students’ Society of McGill University.

“Even though we’re really excited to go back to in-person learning, there’s a lot of safety issues that we see right now,” says Hannah Jamet-Lange, academic and advocacy coordinator for the Concordia Student Union. 

Amid all the uncertainty, some things are for sure, like mask mandates and some modifications to the annual orientation events. We spoke with members of the executive teams of the SSMU and the CSU about some of the challenges students face in their return to school this year, and what they can expect from their student unions.


“We’re trying to create activities, create that environment that brings back the student experience in the safest and most inclusive way,” says Daryanani. 

The SSMU will have its usual twice annual Activities Night, and this time for the fall semester it will take place over two nights: one virtual night and one in-person. On Sept. 13, the virtual night will take place on Gather.Town, a virtual space with over 250 “booths” that attendees will be able to visit and chat with people involved in different facets of McGill student life. After the virtual night will be the Activities Night “afterhours” on Sept. 14, an in-person, 18+ event at Muzique. 

Daryanani says that all events will be planned in accordance with public health guidelines. McGill’s student bar Gerts will also be opening for the first time in about three years, since it closed before the pandemic for renovations. Daryanani noted that since Gerts qualifies as a non-essential service, students will have to show proof of vaccination to enter. And more events will be added to the schedule as students settle back in.

“All of these things have to be inclusive for those who don’t have their vaccines yet so we will have alternative events,” says Daryanani.  

The CSU’s Student Life Coordinator Malcolm Asselin outlined several events planned for back to school. One such event is the Pins and Poetry night taking place on Sept. 11 on the terrasse outside the Hall Building, which will be a night of poetry, food and tabling.

Asselin says that Concordia is enforcing some regulations for food: people eating (or even just taking a sip of water) need to be sitting in a designated area and must be two metres apart from anyone they are speaking to. Masks will be mandatory at all events, and they will do their best to maintain physical distancing as well.

“Things are changing every day, pretty much. It’s very weird to juggle. I am continuously making accommodations with the new guidelines,” says Asselin. 

There will also be an art exhibit in collaboration with the Fine Arts Student Association, and several events promoting health and wellness organized with the Recovery & Wellness Community Centre: yoga, dance and writing are some of the events planned, to be held at Loyola campus. 

Student concerns

Daryanani hopes to see more action from the university to address the long term impacts on physical and mental health, as well as existing inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The vaccine is a vaccine to protect us from COVID, but it doesn’t mean that once you get the vaccine, you forget COVID. So the trauma, the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty is something that has not been addressed,” he says. “The loss has been immeasurable around the world. So many incidents, everywhere. I don’t think McGill has helped with that. On the SSMU side, we’re trying.” 

With a third of McGill students coming from abroad, Daryanani is concerned that travel restrictions and global vaccine inequality will make things harder for international students during the back to school season. As it stands, travellers from India can’t enter the country until Sept. 21, which complicates things for those coming here to study. 

“Those who are currently registered might have to take a leave of absence, which is very detrimental. You pay tuition, you expect to come to school after a four-month-long summer after an 18-month break [from in-person learning], but suddenly just because of a travel measure, you’re not allowed to come here,” says Daryanani.

“What we would like to see is that students are really given choices, that there be more options,” says Jamet-Lange of the CSU. One such option is the ability to attend classes virtually as well as in person. The CSU also thinks that recordings of classes should be made available online. 

“We’re going into a Delta fourth wave right now, cases are rising again and a lot of students are really concerned about that.” 

Concordia has said that those with medical issues can get exemptions, but the CSU wonders how these exemptions will be granted. “How can the university have the authority to distinguish what a legitimate health concern is? It’s a bit problematic,” says Asselin. “People who have anxiety and are uncomfortable with going back to class, that is also legitimate.” 

Vaccine mandates

Though the SSMU and the CSU are both saying they believe vaccines are the surest way out of this pandemic, university adoption of a vaccine mandate to attend in-person learning is not such a clear-cut topic. 

“We definitely think that there’s a lot of benefit to it, and we think that it could be really helpful,” says Jamet-Lange. But if it were to be implemented, the CSU wants to make sure accommodations would be made for students who can’t get the vaccine for health reasons, like quick test locations at both campuses.  

International students at Montreal universities might be coming from countries where the vaccine rollout is happening at a much slower rate, so a grace period to allow those students time to get their shots here would also be important for inclusivity, says Jamet-Lange

A mandate that only accepts those vaccines that have been approved for use in Canada leaves out many vaccines that have been used elsewhere. “That is unfair. That is not what we stand for at SSMU,” says Daryanani. 

He also points to the fact that students enrolled for their classes months ago, and so adding a vaccine mandate now would not be appropriate. It’s a bit too late to entertain the notion now, he says. “It’s been a year since we knew that we were going to open back up.” 

Despite these issues and uncertainties, there is still a lot of excitement as many students at Montreal universities will get to have their first taste of the in-person university life. “They want to have the full university experience,” says Jamet-Lange. ■

This article originally appeared in the Sept. issue of Cult MTL.

For more, please visit the Arts & Life section.