Opinion: The University of Waterloo Should Reopen

Aerial view of the University of Waterloo campus.

Aerial view of the University of Waterloo campus. Photo courtesy of the University of Waterloo.

How much would you trust a software engineer who’s never programmed before? 

Maybe they’ve written a couple of papers about programming, or discussed programming approaches with some well-qualified people, or observed simulations to replicate the experience of programming. Perhaps they have an official piece of paper showing they know something about programming. But they’ve never actually programmed, and it might have been years since they even touched a computer. 

For most people, the idea is completely ludicrous. This hypothetical student is completely unprepared and unqualified to be a software engineer. They might point to a very shiny piece of paper, certified by a trustworthy establishment, that suggests they know something about software engineer. After all, they don’t just hand out to diplomas to everyone. But we all know that a sheet of paper is just that; a sheet of paper. If you can’t do the things it says on the paper, well you might as well use it as kindling.

Thankfully no software engineer is going to emerge from software engineering without programming, a skill most think is essential for software design. After all, computers are conveniently portable and can communicate with one another from 10 meters apart as easily as if that distance was 1000 kilometers. Other branches of engineering are not so lucky.

How does a student learn to analyze material hardness when the material is in Waterloo, and the student is in Saskatchewan? How do students assemble and test robots when the equipment costs thousands of dollars, and they might have access to a 1990’s Lego Mindstorm if they’re lucky? How can students have a coherent group meeting when the members are scattered over shaky Wi-Fi connections and easily ignored Zoom calls?

No, watching videos of bored T.A.s doing things effortlessly is nowhere near actually doing those things oneself. Students are surely not going to learn how to operate an electron microscope through virtual osmosis, are they? They’re not going to learn how to become an effective team player by muting annoying group members and sending passive-aggressive Google docs invites. This is not what we, the students, need. It is a paltry imitation of what we deserve from such a fine academic institution.

Now, there is a worldwide pandemic going on at the moment, that we must assiduously seek to subdue. Human lives are not a matter to be taken lightly, under any circumstances, and it was commendable when the university sent students home during the winter, spring, and fall sessions when so little was known about the virus. However, it has been half a year, and we know so much more about Covid-19, and the rest of the world has changed as a result. Surfaces were initially believed to be a large source of transmission, but further research has proved that with proper sanitation, the risk is actually quite low.

Social distancing and mask-wearing have been proven to decrease the likelihood of transmission. As a consequence, in Ontario, most of the province has re-opened. Virtually every in-person business is opened again, from nail salons to restaurants to bank branches. Even elementary schools and high schools have reopened, many with even greater class sizes than pre-pandemic levels. You can’t tell me that it’s safe to stuff 30 snot-nosed five-year-olds with no understanding of basic hygiene into a poorly ventilated classroom, but you can’t bring a small group of university students for a lab. 

Obviously, no one is advocated for a full return to pre-pandemic procedures at the university, lectures of 100 students are easily supplemented with video lectures. You lose a few class participants, but lectures were never that interactive before. In fact, you can argue lectures aren’t even the core of the university experience. If post-secondary could be reduced to watching a series of videos, then we’d just need a library subscription and get a few audiobooks (I digress, education institutions are too ingrained as signaling mechanisms in our society to be replaced), not a whole institution. The core of the university experience is using the knowledge and skills we have to create. To investigate complex problems, design innovative solutions, and explore limitless possibilities. A 2015 MacBook in your parent’s basement defines limited, not limitless.

Labs, discussion groups, and design projects are the backbone of higher education. They elevate our understanding and hone our critical thinking. If these experiences are executed poorly, students become nothing more than expensive file folders of half-learned information. Resources and spontaneous social interactions are irreplaceable for these experiences. There is no way to properly engage with resources hidden in abandoned storage lockers, especially when most students are trapped in an environment designed to maximize sleep and comfort.

These educational modes also feature much smaller learning group sizes, very convenient for a pandemic. The university has hundreds of rooms and hundreds of hours to schedule the appropriate amount for all students. Students arrive in a small group of about 20 for their sessions, do their assigned tasks, and leave. 

Some might say that with a group of 20 for each class, and five classes; that’s exposure to a hundred people, a larger circle than public health agencies are recommending. For engineering students though, most, if not all classes are identical for each cohort of each program. Thus, a student can have be in a group of 20 students that rotates to every one of their classes. Additionally, you can further break down these groups into four-person lab pods that must social distant from other pods and the instructors. Coupled with a mandatory mask policy, and you can ensure an acceptable level of safety.

Now you might agree that this sounds reasonable, that there is a way to safely re-open parts of the university to ensure students have the most fulfilling experience. The Waterloo Department of Athletics and Recreation also agrees. They allow students to come in for 45-minute sessions, that they can participate in maskless, and is followed by 15 minutes of cleaning. Surely if these regulations are good enough for one department, that fulfills something only tangentially related to the “academic mission”, they are good enough for the “raison-d’être” departments of the university. Though they did announce that some labs may proceed in person, they said it would replicate the fall term, but for engineering that only gave some cohorts from one department the chance to engage in person.

The McDonalds workers are out flipping burgers, the barbers are trimming everyone’s hair, but university students are left at home to…twiddle their thumbs? Atlantic Canadian universities are doing it, American universities are doing it, why won’t Waterloo do it? Students deserve a real education, and the only way to do that is to allow in-person components. We can’t afford to lose a generation to half-baked ideas and basement burnout.

Edited October 20th to remedy some typos. We are deeply sorry for this mistake.







  1. Sassan Sanei

    It is true that mask wearing, physical distancing, and hand sanitizing would almost completely mitigate the risks. I agree that the university could safely reopen if everybody followed these 3 rules consistently.

    But the reality is that people DO NOT follow these rules. There is a segment of the population that does not take the covid threat seriously, that feels invincible, that wears masks incorrectly, that forgets to wash their hands, that hovers close to other people, or that is just plain lazy or ignorant. I have seen it over and over.

    It takes only ONE such person to cause an outbreak in an entire classroom of students. And from there, it’s spread to the general community.

    Think of it like driving. If everybody actually followed the rules of the road, there would be no car accidents. But humans are, well, human.

    Sassan Sanei
    Electrical Engineering class of 1991

  2. Eric

    How much would trust a software engineer who’s never programmed before?

    Who? You, me, the public?

  3. Eric

    Universities contain a lot of high risk individuals, and remote education was long overdo. Epidemiologists have advised against reopening schools, and the models and data both show this.

  4. Sonali Khair


  5. Calvin

    This article sorely misses the point of the restrictions, doesn’t present any data about the experience of American students or those in the Atlantic regions, and demonstrates a misunderstanding of the purpose of the university.

    Reading through a sampling of articles on the student experience in the U.S. right now, it’s obvious that the re-opening of schools has been a disaster – https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/12/us-universities-colleges-coronavirus-cases-surges

    Many schools have had hundreds of cases in their student body, inflamed by parties, poor social distancing, and the use of shared spaces. That’s not fair to graduate students, professors, and students with on-campus employment who risk their health and research projects to work on campus. You can’t conduct research in an environment where your lab gets shut down every two weeks for cleaning.

    This article also doesn’t discuss the financial benefits of remote learning for the University. If engineering students are paying full tuition, what financial incentive does the university have to bring everyone back?

    I agree that online learning is less than ideal. The university should be encouraging students to form small, in-person study groups in areas with low case counts to work on design projects, run labs with materials shipped to them by the university, and seek co-op employment in their area. Unfortunately, Ontario is not ready for university students to return to campus.

  6. Nala

    There are some typos and grammatical errors present in the article. As for the opinion of the author, I don’t fully agree. Recently there was an outbreak in one of the residences at Laurier, for example (https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/wlu-outbreak-linked-to-study-groups-grows-to-19-cases-1.5148854). If uW required students to come part time on campus for lab sessions, those students would need to move back to Waterloo. The outbreak at Laurier could be at a greater scale in that case. Rather, I think the university should lower tuition costs further as the quality of education being delivered online is subpar compared to in-person, at least until a vaccine is made publicly available here.

  7. Paula Boyle

    I agree 100%!

  8. M

    This is an incredibly dangerous, irresponsible and tone-deaf thing to have published. Not to mention the tone is incredibly pretentious and smarmy . The opening up of businesses and schools across the province has resulted in surging cases. The fact that schools are open and are allowing 30+ students in the classroom is an example of the government failing to take proper action. We should not be taking the government’s failures as an excuse to endanger the student population.

    The current situation is not ideal for people with more technical degrees, I am not disputing that. I believe the tuition should be suitably lowered to accommodate for that. Labs can be taken at a different time, or schedules altered. For graduating students, there might have to be an accommodation made. It’s a difficult situation, but it is a difficult situation for everyone, not just engineering students at Waterloo.

    To put one’s education over another person’s life is an incredibly selfish position to take. While the author of this piece is willing to take the risk to have in-person labs, they would not be the only person affected by that choice. Professors, TAs and janitorial staff are among the people that would be putting their lives at risk to provide labs. Either that or they would have to chose between their health and their livelihoods. While yes, for the majority of people who contract COVID-19 recover, many also do not. Those that do often suffer complications months after they recover. How many deaths or quality years of life lost is the author willing to have on their conscience as an “acceptable amount”?

  9. Nathan Rudd

    Things definetely need to be improved for the winter term, but it’s not like this requires going back on campus. Real education is about learning, not the in-person components which tend to detract from that learning (I’m not saying no interaction, I’m saying improved interactions are needed). Labs are the one exception, don’t make it sound like this applies to the entire school.

  10. John Rodriguez

    One thing you need to realize and did not take into account is international students. Unlike high school, where all the students are local and live in the vicinity of the school, in a university students come from all over the world. Just because we live in Canada, we get upset that the university is not open because we can readily go back in person. But the university cannot just tell everyone to come back in the midst of a pandemic, because many international students live in countries with highly varying rules and regulations. There might be students coming from countries where social distancing/precautionary measures might not be as strongly in place like in Canada, and if they bring back anything with them it can affect other students in the university. Additionally, their countries may not even let them travel outside to come to Waterloo and study. Keeping some optional learning in person also doesn’t make sense because keeping an in person and online option for every lab/assignment is more work for the staff and is not feasible because they can’t guarantee the same quality of content delivery between online and in person. So either everyone is back in person, or everyone is online. While I understand where you are coming from, you need to understand that this is a global pandemic and we cannot discuss the return of students to Waterloo without taking into account the whole student body from around the world. And frankly I don’t know how many students would feel comfortable wearing masks for 8 hours a day sitting next to other people wearing masks in a lecture hall just for the so called “university experience”. I don’t know if it’s worth going through all that hassle just to get a better university experience which in the long run won’t be a determining factor in most student’s careers. Many would rather avoid all that, and study from the safety/comfort of their home rather than be masked 24/7 and sanitize every minute. Sure, quality of learning may take a hit temporarily while online, but if it means ensuring the safety of the student/staff body, I don’t see anything wrong there. lnfact many would say being able to watch lectures at your own pace and time, contributes to a better learning experience and a less stressful learning environment than if you have to sit in a lecture hall for hours everyday.

  11. Albert Markovsky

    The problem is staffing. Students are already complaining about tuition fees. With 20 students per lab section you’d have some cohorts with an untenable number of sections. Imagine 1A ECE, with more than 400 students. For their physics labs alone that’s 20 sections. Even with re use of TAs you’d have a huge increase in cost. How do you pay for it?

  12. Lauren

    Why is a year 2 engineering student in an area that has NOTHING to do with biology or immunology, writing a piece pushing to reopen? They do not have the expertise to even make these comments. I’ll stick to listening to official health officials.

  13. Phil base

    I totally agree with the author. The rest of the people who commented bashing him are not even looking at numbers. Living in fear with 20 cases per day in Waterloo is just plain dumb. Sure Toronto might want to take more precaution when opening up but c’mon, Waterloo’s numbers are peanuts.

    University was already bad enough with in person lectures and classes and now that it’s remote, students coming out are becoming a lot less qualified to do any job. This could have huge effects on the economy cause I don’t see restrictions being taken off for years because not everyone will get the vaccine when it comes out.

    The government debt is just ridiculous and they will need to pay it back by raising taxes. This drives businesses and talent away from Canada and only will increase the number in poverty. That will be a larger “epidemic” than covid-19

  14. Kirsten

    In response to Lauren: IW Team member here. This article is part of the IW PCP series meant to provide discussion on issues with different arguments. It’s an exercise meant to provide content for discussion and critique online learning. There are several valuable points. As always, I appreciate when readers recognize our biases and lack of expertise in a particular area. This is important when reading any information online. Obviously, IW does not write public health guidelines. Please comply with public health regulations in your region.

  15. PM

    How much would trust a software engineer who’s never programmed before?

    I know I would never trust a software engineer that produces programs where the javascript Web GUI produces and answers the login page .. and a book that has ‘Web ‘ and ‘Security’ in the title but one does not find the word ‘security’ in the book, nor examples on exactly how to secure the ‘Web’ framework from any OWASP attack.

    I have seen both in UW Engineering (with screenshots). And from a claimed computist.

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