Students at several post-secondary institutions were asked or told Wednesday to move out of their dorms in response to COVID-19, forcing many to search for housing or move between cities at a time when Canadians have been advised to stay home.

Some schools, such as the University of Ottawa and Toronto's Ryerson University, said students living on campus were required to vacate their rooms, and set deadlines for the move to be complete.

Others, including McGill University and Algonquin College, said they were asking or encouraging students to leave voluntarily.

Most institutions said exceptions could be made for international students and those with "exceptional circumstances," or who needed more time to arrange an out-of-province move.

The decision marks the latest in a series of measures meant to curb the risk and impact of the novel coronavirus on campuses.

In recent days, colleges and universities have largely shut down their buildings and moved classes online, as well as cancelled in-person exams and co-op placements.

Some students said they understood why they were advised to move out, but were nonetheless stressed out by this latest hurdle, which comes amid growing uncertainty about their education and future.

Jason Beharriell, a first-year radio broadcasting student at Hamilton's Mohawk College, spent several hours worrying he would be forced to move out of his dorm before learning he had been granted an exemption.

Beharriell, 40, said he was concerned about arranging a last-minute move given that he uses a wheelchair and currently has four, each serving a different purpose.

His hometown of Sault Ste Marie, Ont., is a nine-hour drive away and finding housing locally seemed unlikely under the circumstances, he said.

"It's sort of difficult because I have all my equipment here. And it would probably be more beneficial just for me to stick it out here and hermit it out and just keep to myself," he said Wednesday.

Students at several colleges, universities asked to vacate dorms over COVID-19

He said there initially appeared to be a lot of confusion over whether students were being asked, or told, to leave. Still, he said: "I don't want to blame anybody. Really, everybody's in a panic."

A spokesman for Mohawk College said Wednesday that students who are able to leave their dorms are "strongly encouraged" to do so, but noted supports will be in place for those who can't.

Landon Nesbitt, a first-year student at Ryerson, said most students living on campus had already left by the time the school told them they had to.

The 19-year-old, who is studying performance acting, said only those from other countries or provinces stuck around after the university classes were cancelled last week.

But many of those are now having to move by Monday afternoon, and Nesbitt said several friends have offered him a place to stay until he can fly home to Edmonton next week.

"Most of us kind of knew was coming because everything else has been shutting down," he said.

"My plan right now is to kind of put all my stuff in storage somewhere this weekend... That's kind of my life right now — in my dorm room trying to find somewhere to put all my stuff and not going outside."

The bigger stressor, Nesbitt said, is wondering if he'll be able to find a summer job to pay for his next semester given the widespread closure of restaurants and venues.

Most post-secondary institutions were offering pro-rated refunds to students moving out of dorms due to the novel coronavirus.

The University of Ottawa said it believed requiring students to leave by Sunday afternoon to be an appropriate response to the current public health emergency.

"It is another critical step in our necessary efforts to employ social distancing to flatten the infection curve and reduce the impact of the virus," the school said in a statement.

At the University of Guelph, undergraduates have also been given a Sunday deadline, though graduate students are allowed to stay in their residences in accordance with their tenancy agreement, a spokeswoman said.

Deirdre Healey said that so far, roughly 200 domestic and international students have asked to extend their stay in housing due to extenuating circumstances. Those who do stay may be asked to move into residences with more apartment-like units, she said.

"These units have kitchens and fewer people share a washroom. These units are also more appropriate spaces for individuals who are in self-isolation," she said in an email.

McGill University, meanwhile, said it has "strongly encouraged" students in residences to consider returning home as soon as possible if they are able to.

"For those who cannot return home at this time, measures have been put in place to facilitate that students in residences adhere to the practice of social distancing and proper hygiene in accordance with the recommendations of public health," the university said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Algonquin College said the school expects 50 to 75 per cent of students will voluntarily vacate its Ottawa dorm, which has 1,040 beds.

Student residences currently remain open at the University of British Columbia, according to a notice posted on its website Wednesday morning, and at the University of Alberta.

"Given the fluidity of the situation, our operations are under ongoing evaluation to determine the safest options for our students," University of Alberta spokeswoman Hallie Brodie said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2020.