The U of M’s more than 3,400 graduate students are facing an uncertain future as they deal with the “massive” disruption caused by the university’s indefinite closure.
The same day the provincial government declared a 30-day state of emergency and announced new protective measures to manage the spread of COVID-19 through Manitoba, the U of M announced it would be closing its doors indefinitely to nearly all but those deemed essential staff.
The closure had a pronounced impact on graduate students, many of whom are both students and employees of the university working as teaching assistants, instructors or research assistants while completing their own studies.
Carl Neumann, president of the U of M Graduate Students’ Association (UMGSA), said the university closure has forced the majority of grad students to pause their research.
“For the majority of grad students — if you’re in medicine or if you’re in engineering or in sciences or so on — most of the research has to happen in a lab and with the university shut down people can’t make any progress,” he said. “This is a huge delay to them completing their programs.”
For more than two weeks, nearly all research being conducted through the university has been suspended. Exceptions were made for research relating to COVID-19 and work involving the care of live plants and animals but Neumann said more requests for exemptions were submitted by students than were granted by the university.
The university has extended the timeline for grad students to complete their programs by four months, which Neumann said is appreciated but until the university re-opens and students are back in the labs it is too soon to say if it will be generous enough.
“We hope that a lot of people can get back to the labs in the not too distant future,” he said, “but it’s still really uncertain how long it’ll be until that can happen.”
The university has announced that in-person classes will not be resumed until at least September.
“We understand they’re dealing with a lot and in a lot of ways there’s not a lot they can do — they can’t magically make a lab safe to work in. It’s a tough situation,” he said.
Since the arrival of COVID-19 in Manitoba last month, the U of M has continued to tailor its response. Just last week, the senate executive approved a revision to the university’s grading policy to allow students three options for the winter 2020 term.
An emergency fund offering support to both graduate and undergraduate students was established but was overwhelmed with applications within days.
But it was in the days after COVID-19 arrived in Manitoba that Neumann said graduate students were most unsure of the next steps as the university’s focus was set on limiting the number of people on campus and relocating all instruction online.
“So much of what we do wasn’t really covered in those initial immediate reactions to dealing with classes specifically,” he said, acknowledging that it was a fast moving and difficult situation and that “I think they really were doing the best that they could.”
Neumann said there is now some more clarity for graduate students but noted there are still many questions to be answered, most directly concerning emergency funding from the provincial and federal levels.
“There’s still a lot that we don’t know,” he said, “but I think the things that we don’t know now are just things that we can’t really answer until things progress more.”