The exam conundrum: Two Montreal schools plan finals in person, but students protest

It’s been tough slogging through this whole semester online, say many Montreal students.

“Having that contact limited, it's very isolating,” said Malak Ismail, who’s studying industrial engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique.

“You feel alone sometimes, and it's not easy.”

So it was a surprise to her and many of her classmates to hear they’d need to show up in person for finals.

“Having to go through all of that in order to stay safe, and then be asked to breach that just for exams, is quite frustrating,” said Ismail.

The school says it decided to hold in-person exams because it wants to prevent cheating—something the school administration says has increased with the switch to online learning.

So Polytechnique is renting out space at the Palais des Congres for its 9,000 students, hoping to give them their exams in a well-spaced way.

Students still aren’t happy with the news, and not just at Polytechnique.

At Dawson College, math, chemistry, physics and some technical exams are scheduled to be held in person as well.

"Organizing final exams is a major operation with the consultation of the DRSP, our local Public Health Authority," said Dawson communications counsellor Christina Parsons. "The DRSP will shut down the exams if they believe that it is unsafe for any reason."

Parsons said summer exams were held without incident and the school is working to ensuring a healthy environment while maintaining academic integrity.

The timing couldn’t be worse, say students who have started a petition. They say the exams could be a superspreader event, right before the holidays.

Some already had an experience of writing finals during the pandemic—in the summer—and they say it didn’t go well.

“Once we were inside, no one was surveilling us,” said Nikolay Tokmantsev, a mechanical engineering student.

“So people started to speak, to chill…they stopped to wear masks, some of them.”

Both McGill and Concordia say their plans were always to hold exams online, and that won’t change.

Polytechnique told CTV News that given Quebec’s plan, announced Thursday, that people will isolate for a week before their holiday to make it safer to see their families, the school is rethinking its plan. 

Dawson doesn’t say the same, and one administrator said the tradeoffs are also significant for allowing exams online.

“Having done much of the semester online, we’ve had pretty significant issues with academic integrity,” said Max Jones, Assistant Dean of Science, Medical Studies and Engineering at Dawson.

“The majority of our students are not trying to game the system, or cheat in any way,” he said. “However, we have had some incidents where that has happened.”

Polytechnique students say the school’s decision will make the difference between whether they can get a real break in between semesters—a break from isolation—or not.

“It's either going to be in isolation, waiting... and then we're going to start the semester all over again, alone,” said Ismail, “or we can do the exams online and we will have this relaxing time that we all need in order to replenish our energy and restart the next semester fresh again.

Polytechnique said it will give an update on its decision on Monday.

Dawson forwarded the schools health protocols which include the following: 

  • Two-metre distance between students in exam rooms
  • Rooms at 50% or less of normal capacity
  • Staggered arrival times- students must make an appointment within 90 minutes of exam start time
  • Swapping out students’ masks with new procedural masks at the exam location
  • Mandatory symptoms screening questionnaire to be admitted inside the building
  • Invigilators for ensuring students do not cheat but also that health protocols are respected
  • Accommodations are being granted for students with a doctor’s note

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