Graphic by Esra Rakab / Production Coordinator

Amidst COVID-19, services across campus try to find ways to stay accessible in an online environment

The online fall term required the McMaster Students Union to adapt and innovate its services, typically run in-person, to continue to provide support, supplies and community to McMaster University students. The MSU runs over 30 services, run by and for students, that offer a range of resources and opportunities, from confidential peer support to first aid. Over the summer months, the part-time managers of each service planned and prepared to convert their in-person programming to online supports.

MSU Food Collective Centre

In typical years, the Food Collective Centre has run an on-campus food bank and various programs to increase food security in the McMaster community. The FCC has offered both catered programming and events, such as the Community Kitchen. PTM Hannan Minhas explained how the FCC will continue to provide these services and be mindful of COVID restrictions.

The drop-in food bank service will be closed to students for the fall term due to COVID restrictions. Instead, Lockers of Love will be the primary service to ensure that students and community members can still access the FCC resources. Students and community members can anonymously fill out an order form for non-perishable food items and health supplies. 

“[The executive team are] trying to make [Lockers of Love] more efficient so students can access food almost the same day or one day later. And we have more lockers so we’ll try to accommodate as many students as we can,” said Minhas. 

“[The executive team are] trying to make [Lockers of Love] more efficient so students can access food almost the same day or one day later. And we have more lockers so we’ll try to accommodate as many students as we can,” said Minhas. 

The Good Food Box, which is run in partnership with the Grace Lutheran Church, will run this term as it has in the past. The box is filled with fresh produce and is picked up on campus. The order and pick-up dates for the fall term can be found at the FCC website.

The FCC will offer the Community Kitchen workshops online, likely through Microsoft Teams to ensure closed captioning. Participants have the chance to cook a recipe along with the instructor, to ask questions and to build skills and confidence in the kitchen. Interested participants reserve their space and fill out a poll for which date and times are preferred, to accommodate all participants regardless of class schedule or time zones. The FCC will increase capacity and maintain a community for the workshops this term because of the virtual setting.

FCC will also run virtual events and contests, such as Quarantine Cooking, where students create and submit a recipe based on a key ingredient for the chance to win a $25 gift card.

MSU Peer Support Services

The four peer support services of the MSU have all adapted their programming in a secure and accessible way for this term. Maccess, Pride Community Centre, Women and Gender Equity Network and Student Health Education Centre have all adapted one-on-one peer support to virtual platforms. Flexibility and the needs of the communities that they serve are priorities for each service this term.

“We’re just trying to be open and have conversations with users who seek resources and responding [to users] in ways that maximize their comfort,” said Yimeng Wang, WGEN coordinator.

“We’re just trying to be open and have conversations with users who seek resources and responding [to users] in ways that maximize their comfort,” said Yimeng Wang, WGEN coordinator.

Each coordinator outlined plans and options to accommodate students in different time zones and with various technological resources.

Students and community members can reach out for one-on-one peer support or join identity-specific community groups in varied ways, such as through email, social media, anonymous forms and the platforms used by different services. Disclosure of specifics is not necessary to join a community group.

Maccess, WGEN and the PCC have each developed a Discord server where participants can access one-on-one peer support through text, audio or video chats. These servers will be available in early October and will be accessible by request. SHEC has developed a “Warmline” using tawk.to to offer non-crisis peer support. The Warmline will be fully anonymous through text chat, but support can also be offered via audio or video chats per student request. The Warmline is expected to launch in the coming weeks.

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Students and community members can also reach out to join identity-specific community groups offered by different services. These groups are run by volunteers with lived experiences and include a BIPoC-2STLGBQIA+ community group from the PCC, a disabled-2STLGBQIA+ community by the PCC and Maccess and Black and Gendered by WGEN and McMaster Womanists. PCC coordinator Christian Barborini highlighted that participants may not be out or may live in unsupportive environments, so they have accommodated supports to suit individual circumstances, such as text-only in the community group.

WGEN also has a peer support group for survivors.

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The PCC will offer individual check-ins this year. Participants can sign up and will receive a weekly text-based check-in from a PCC volunteer.

SHEC coordinator Sydney Cumming hopes to develop a system for students and community members to access the free resources that SHEC has normally provided. This is still in the works; however, Cumming is hoping to have a system by the end of the fall term. Cumming hopes to partner with the FCC’s Lockers of Love and WGEN with their gender-affirming products that Cumming highlighted as “life-saving”. In addition, the SHEC team hopes to partner with libraries and the Student Wellness Centre to offer various products. 

All of the peer support services plan to run events this term. Calvin Prowse, Maccess coordinator, planned for more frequent but relaxed events and is excited for the opportunity to have events they weren’t able to do previously. Maccess has a Pet and Plant Appreciation Party planned for later this term. Cumming has SHEC events planned to distribute resources to students, such as grocery store gift cards.

The service coordinators had different preferences for video platforms. SHEC, Maccess and PCC preferred Microsoft Teams for its built-in closed captioning. Wang preferred Zoom and Otter.ai for closed captioning.

“I think it was really important for us to try to find a way to create a community space in a way that doesn’t add on to Zoom fatigue and gives people a break,” said Prowse.

The coordinators are also working to ensure that the various platforms, such as Discord and tawk.to, are compatible with screen readers.

“I think it was really important for us to try to find a way to create a community space in a way that doesn’t add on to Zoom fatigue and gives people a break,” said Prowse

MSU Emergency First Response Team

The yellow backpacks won’t be on campus for a while, at least until November when the EFRT advisory board will re-evaluate whether it is safe for responders to be on-call. According to the EFRT Director Kevin Park, the EFRT advisory board has developed a “return to call” criteria. The advisory board is made up of student staff, including MSU representatives and medical doctors, including the EFRT Medical Director Dr. Morgan Hillier.

The priority of EFRT and its advisory board is the safety of all responders and community members. The safe reopening evaluation criteria are: risk of COVID-19 to responders, enough personal protective equipment, the population numbers on campus and office space for responders.

According to Park, the number of people on campus is used to gauge the capacity of Security Services and the Student Wellness Centre to respond, in case of an emergency on campus. The office space is a concern for Park, as he said that their current space is shared between 30 students and unable to accommodate social distancing. In addition, Park is concerned about the current spike of COVID-19 cases in Ontario and on university campuses, such as Western University.

“We’ve been trying to focus mainly on the things that we couldn’t do before,” explained Park.

In light of this, EFRT has increased its social media presence and has changed its training and hiring practices.

“We’ve been trying to focus mainly on the things that we couldn’t do before,” explained Park

Current EFRT responders have continued to practice First Aid and CPR. EFRT will run monthly virtual training sessions that will focus on critical thinking skills and knowledge of protocols. Park wants all responders to maintain their standard so that they are ready to go back as soon as possible.

For more information on MSU service adaptations, check out the MSU website.

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When reached for an interview about the MSU’s service changes, VP (Administration) Graeme Noble and AVP (Services) Martino Salciccioli declined an interview.

Correction: Oct

Because of an error while collecting information, a previous version of this article misstated the medical director of EFRT as Dr. Eddie Wasser. The current medical director is Dr. Morgan Hillier and the article has been updated accordingly.

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