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COVID-19 updates for December 2020

BY UA/AU | DEC 31 2020

December 23, 2020

COVID-19 cases on campus

The University of Windsor has another three cases of COVID-19 to report. These new cases are unrelated to previously reported cases. Since the start of December, the university has reported eight new cases in its community. The Windsor-Essex region has had Ontario’s worst COVID infection rate for a week. On Tuesday, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit reported 213 newly confirmed COVID-19 infections, bringing the region’s total number of cases to over 6,000. In the announcement, the university reminded its staff, students and faculty not to gather with others outside their households and to follow well-established health and safety protocol like regular handwashing and wearing a mask.

McMaster University reported a new case on campus on December 20 – a day before Hamilton, Ontario, joined Toronto and the Peel Region in a provincially mandated lockdown. The affected student was last on campus on December 16. Courses will resume online at McMaster on January 11.

And nearby, Redeemer University reported an outbreak, with two new cases identified in its community. These cases are related to two other cases that were identified in residence on December 16. Redeemer has had five total cases on campus since September. The university also clarified plans for its winter term. Redeemer had been one of the few Ontario universities to offer in-person classes in the fall term, but winter classes will begin January 11 by remote delivery only, due to the provincial lockdown. A dual-delivery format will resume on January 25, if the provincial government permits it.

Made-in-Canada vaccine candidate approved for human trials

Health Canada has authorized the Vaccine and infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan to start a phase 1 clinical trial of its COVID-19 vaccine. The VIDO vaccine project has been developed in collaboration with the Canadian Center for Vaccinology in Halifax (itself a partnership between a collaboration of Dalhousie University, IWK Health Centre and the Nova Scotia Health Authority). The federal authorization permits the Halifax centre to recruit volunteers who will test the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in humans. Vaccinations are planned for January.

CCfV director Scott Halperin says that this is the “first university-based” COVID-19 vaccine to start phase 1 testing at his organization. Volker Gerdts, VIDO director and CEO, calls the approval a “milestone” and also notes that the vaccine entering human trials is one of two subunit vaccine candidates that VIDO is developing. He adds that if the full three-phase trials are successful, VIDO expects to have at least one of its vaccines ready for use by late 2021.

The protein subunit vaccines differ from the approved vaccines currently being distributed for use around the globe because they are “created out of specific parts of a dead germ rather than a live virus or an entire dead germ.” Such vaccines are commonly used against hepatitis B and human papillomavirus, among other viruses and diseases. CTV News reports that 18 of the 61 vaccine candidates that have reached human trials are based on protein subunits and that subunit vaccines are typically much simpler to mass-produce and store.

York journal publishes double-issue on motherhood and academic life during the pandemic

York University’s Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (JMI) recently published a special double-issue on the theme of “academic motherhood and COVID-19.” It features 18 articles on how COVID-19 affects motherhood for those in an academic role.

JMI editor-in-chief Andrea O’Reilly, a professor with York’s school of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, says this journal issue is the first of its kind to explore the impact of the pandemic on mothers in academia, their care and labour. The issue’s table-of-contents is available online.

VIU hosts COVID testing centre

Vancouver Island University has partnered with Island Health to open a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at a parking lot on its Nanaimo campus. The collection site opened on December 1 and consists of four vehicle bays. VIU is following the lead of B.C.’s Vancouver Community College and the University of Victoria, which both collaborated with their local health systems to set up drive-thru sites in August and October, respectively.

Exam platform crashes during peak period at U of Regina

The online exam platform at the University of Regina crashed as nearly 2,000 students logged on at the same time on Monday. The system had 33 exams scheduled at the time. In an interview with CBC News, Art Exner, associate vice-president of information services, said the crash led to “some uneven experiences by the students,” but he noted that “many students were able to sign on and write their exams as scheduled.” Some exams were delayed, and some instructors opted to either extend their courses or change the time of their exams.

“This is the first time the university has run its fall semester all online. This is the first time this number of exams and number of students were attempting to write exams simultaneously,” he said. Exams resumed on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.

Ontario lockdown pushes back return to the classroom for some programs

On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a province-wide lockdown beginning December 26. For universities designated as part of the Southern Ontario lockdown, that means most in-person activities – including labs and classes, non-essential administrative work and services – won’t resume on campus until January 25. Most universities in Ontario have already pushed back the start of the winter term by a week, to January 11, and have opted for a remote-learning model for the winter term. At institutions like Western University, the lockdown will largely only impact health-related programs.

Managing mental health over the holidays

As the holiday break begins at postsecondary institutions across the country, universities have acknowledged that this will be a particularly difficult time of year for many – especially for those who won’t be celebrating with family and loved ones. Several institutions have offered additional support for managing mental health challenges during this period.

The University of Calgary has compiled advice from several of its mental-health care providers. They suggest exercising self-compassion, checking in with yourself regularly, reaching out and connecting to others in whatever form is available to you, practice kindness and generosity with others, lower your holiday expectations and try out some new traditions.

Students at the University of Guelph will have access the Student Support Network and an official Facebook group called Winter Break 2020. U of G’s vice-provost of student affairs, Carrie Chassels, will even host a virtual Christmas Eve gathering tomorrow.

In B.C., the provincial government is once again promoting its 24-hour counselling service for postsecondary students called Here2Talk. The service first launched in April.

Goodbye 2020, hello 2020 newsletters

After publishing nearly 140 COVID updates (that’s more than 100,000 words) this year, today’s post will be our last for 2020. Please keep visiting throughout the holiday break, though, as we’ll continue to publish new content. And keep an eye out for our annual staff picks and year-in-review newsletters, which we’ll send to subscribers this week and next.

If you’re not a subscriber, sign up for our weekly newsletter now! (Did you know we also send a weekly newsletter in French?)

Have a restful holiday break!

December 21, 2020

COVID-19 cases on campus

Three new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the University of Windsor. These recent cases are unrelated to previously announced cases. A total of five cases have been reported at the university this month.

The University of Waterloo has announced two more cases in the community. According to CTV News, the university has reported 18 cases in its community since October.

An outbreak tied to a series of house parties in the student housing district near Queen’s University has now been linked to dozens of COVID cases. While local bylaw officers have issued multiple fines related to these parties, a Kingston-area news website reports that university officials have not yet followed up to investigate potential student code of conduct violations.

Ontario invests $77M in retraining, upskilling

The Government of Ontario will put $77 million towards retraining employees affected by pandemic-related layoffs. The province estimates 2,750 employees will benefit from the redesigned Second Career program, which provides participants with up to $28,000 for tuition, training materials and living expenses while pursuing training in “in-demand” fields. This updated version of the upskilling program will focus on jobs in the areas of advanced manufacturing, life sciences, information and communications, and supportive health services. To be eligible, job-seekers must enroll in a program that runs 52 weeks or less.

Immigration clears up confusion around international student permits

The PIE News is reporting that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will allow international travellers to enter the country on a study permit even for courses lasting less than six months.

“IRCC is aware that there is an issue in the [eligibility] questionnaire which does not present applicants the option to apply for a study permit if they plan to study for less than six months and do not require a temporary resident visa. We are currently working to address this issue,” IRCC said. “In the meantime, applicants who wish to apply for a study permit for a short-term program can indicate during the eligibility questionnaire that they intend to stay in Canada for longer than six months. This will generate their document checklist for a study permit application. … When they complete the application, the applicant should include their actual dates of study which reflect that [they] intend to study for less than six months.”

Alberta preps U of A’s Butterdome to serve as field hospital

In March, the Government of Alberta sketched out plans on how to turn the University of Alberta’s Butterdome into a secondary assessment and treatment facility for Alberta Health Services to care for COVID-19 patients. This month, the province started putting those plans into action. The AHS and the Red Cross are preparing the university’s events pavilion to serve as a temporary 100-bed hospital in the event that local hospitals become overwhelmed. The campus site could be used for patients recovering from COVID-19 and who are at low risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus that causes the disease, an AHS spokesperson told the CBC. The Butterdome is one of two field hospitals Alberta is setting up to accommodate hundreds of patients as COVID cases spread across the province.

StFX celebrates its COVID-free fall term

In a press release circulated last week, St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, celebrated the fact that it finished the fall term without a single confirmed case of COVID-19 reported on campus. StFX is one of the few universities in Canada that opted for a primarily in-person fall term (the university reports that 64 percent of classes were face-to-face). The university issued the notice at the end of the exam period. About 50 students will remain on campus throughout the holiday break.

U Laval bucks compassionate-grading trend

While several Canadian universities are offering students a pass/fail grading option for the fall term, Université Laval won’t be following the pack. Radio-Canada reports that the Quebec institution will maintain its usual grading scheme for the fall term. Student groups have requested compassionate grading options, but ultimately, the university said it decided against the accommodation after reviewing the results of a campus-wide survey. Robert Beauregard, the university’s vice-rector, academic, wrote in an email to students last week that maintaining the standard grading system would ensure equitable grading practices.

Remote-learning throughout 2021 still on the table at U of Saskatchewan

Despite news that Canada’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is ahead of schedule, University of Saskatchewan’s president doesn’t want to take any chances just yet. Peter Stoicheff told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning that spring will bring more of the same remote learning that students and instructors have managed throughout most of 2020. “I can’t predict with certainty, but I think that by [May] we should be able to make an announcement about what the fall is going to look like.”

Something nice: Seasonal tunes and gingerbread houses

We’re celebrating the end of the fall term by bringing back our “Something nice” section this week. Today, we’re sharing Campion College’s favourite Christmas songs. The Christian college, federated with the University of Regina, prepared the Spotify playlist to help you get in a festive mood.

Further west, Vancouver Island University president Deb Saucier builds a gingerbread house with her daughter Mia – as coached by a faculty member with VIU’s baking and pastry arts – in her end-of-year address to the community.

For more holiday video greetings by university presidents, check out Ken Steele’s last blog post of the year, in which he rounds up his favourites.

December 16, 2020

COVID-19 cases on campus

Public health authorities in Kingston, Ontario, now say that multiple cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to several house parties that occurred in the student housing district near Queen’s University over the weekend of December 11 and 12. The health unit is suggesting all partygoers go get tested. Global News reports that this is the second series of cases that have been tied to student house parties in Kingston this month.

London Health Sciences Centre reported a new death in connection to an outbreak at University Hospital on the Western University campus. A total of 16 deaths have been linked to the outbreak. Three new cases of COVID-19 were also connected to the outbreak this week.

$25.6M for Manitoba’s postsecondary institutions

The Government of Manitoba will distribute $25.6 million to postsecondary institutions to help cover costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds will be disbursed through the Transitional Support Fund.

In a press release, the province noted that it approved 37 programming changes focused on health, technology, digital media, micro-credentials and upskilling in order “to ensure postsecondary alignment with Manitoba’s pandemic economic recovery goals.” The funds will be allocated based on enrolment changes, online learning technology adaptations and other needs.

“We thank our postsecondary institutions for their thorough and thoughtful proposals to access the one-time Transitional Support Fund,” said Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler. “We look forward to continuing dialogue and collaboration with our postsecondary partners as we work together to restart our economy and ensure the success of Manitoba’s students.”

Open letter update: Quebec locks down for the holidays

In Monday’s update, we reported on an open letter asking the Quebec government to implement a lockdown during the holiday break this month. Yesterday, Premier François Legault announced that the province will do so, shutting down non-essential businesses from December 25 to January 11. The premier said the decision was made based on rising case counts in Quebec and to relieve pressure on the province’s hospitals.

Home for the holidays?

Students and their families are making some challenging decisions about how to navigate the holiday break. The CBC spoke with a number of students about holiday travel and the measures that some students are taking, like getting tested for COVID-19 and self-isolating for two weeks before leaving school for home.

Earlier this month, the broadcaster also reported on how several students on Canada’s East Coast scrambled to get home before the Atlantic bubble popped. On the other side of the country, the Times Colonist newspaper reports on why many international and out-of-province students in British Columbia have decided to stay put for the break.

Meanwhile, several universities have issued some guidance or suggestions to students about holiday travel.

The Universite of Prince Edward Island “strongly” encouraged students to stay in the province, or at least in the Atlantic region. “We know this is a difficult decision, but it will ensure that you do not face any barriers when returning to PEI and to your studies at UPEI,” read a statement posted by the university on December 2. UPEI’s residences will stay open and student affairs will organize some “festive activities” for those who stay on campus. All students in Atlantic Canada who leave the region for the holidays will have to self-isolate for two weeks upon their return to the area. In some areas, they may also have to submit pre-departure plans to their local health authorities.

Dalhousie University offered some specific safety tips for those who will travel over the end-of-term break, but also issued a warning: “we wanted to remind students that there can be severe consequences for not doing your part in keeping our community safe. This includes being accountable for your choices both on and off campus. In addition to significant fines issued by our local police authority, our Code of Student Conduct will be used to the fullest extent possible to address deliberate disregard of Public Health directives.”

Queen’s University and Kingston’s public health unit are discouraging non-essential travel, but are also preparing for multiple scenarios once class is back in session.

Officials with London public health ask that Western University students “double down” on safety measures before heading home, including minimizing exposure to other people for two weeks prior to leaving campus.

The federal government has published its own suggestions for safely celebrating the season as well as tips for mitigating risk during holiday travel and festivities

Holiday care packages

It’s been a tough year for students. To bolster holiday cheer, the University of Windsor’s Students’ Alliance, its CAW Student Centre and student experience office teamed up to send 400 care packages at the start of the exam period.

For students who can’t travel home this year, the University of Calgary has launched a crowdfunding campaign. The university is looking to raise $5,000 to support more than 200 students on campus during the holiday season. The money will go towards takeout meals, gift cards, organized activities like snowshoeing and crafting, as well as discounted tickets for local attractions (provided they are open).

At Laurentian University, the alumni association adapted its Exam Wishes program, with Laurentian grads sending 273 current students virtual gift cards, advice and tips to weather the end of term.

December 14, 2020

First COVID vaccines arrive in Canada

This week, a small number of Canadians – some of them members of Canada’s academic and research communities – will be the first in the country to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. In Manitoba, vaccinations of frontline health-care workers will take place at the University of Manitoba’s Rady Faculty of Health Sciences campus in Winnipeg on a first-come, first-served basis. In Ontario, vaccines will be distributed through Toronto’s University Health Network and The Ottawa Hospital to health-care professionals working in high-risk situations. In Alberta, acute-care staff at Foothills Hospital and the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary, and from University of Alberta and Royal Alexandra hospitals in Edmonton will be first to get the vaccine. The CBC has posted a province-by-province rollout plan for the vaccine.

Although this news brings hope that the pandemic will come to an end relatively soon, there are still outbreaks and new cases to report in the university community – a grim reminder of the importance of following pandemic-related public health measures in the meantime.

COVID-19 cases on campus

Another case of COVID-19 has been linked to a community member at the University of Windsor.

The University of Waterloo confirmed on Friday a second COVID-19 outbreak in a campus residence building. Two close contacts residing in Claudette Millar Hall have tested positive for the virus. The students are self-isolating in dedicated residence units with support from the university’s residence life team. This is the second outbreak in Claudette Millar Hall. The first outbreak occurred in early November, when two students in in the residence contracted the virus. What happens when a student goes into self-isolation on campus? Residence life manager Kristen Leal explains:

On Sunday, Wilfrid Laurier University also confirmed a new case of COVID-19 in student housing on its Waterloo campus. The student lives in Clara Conrad Hall and is self-isolating. In October, students on three floors of Clara Conrad Hall were required to self-isolate after an outbreak was declared on campus. At the time, some 15 cases had been linked to the university community.

The public health authority in Kingston warns that two people with pre-symptomatic cases of COVID-19 attended a number of house parties in the city’s student housing district near Queen’s University earlier this month. Over the weekend, public health reported 100 active cases in the Kingston region, 25 of which have been linked to “events off-campus near Queen’s.” The area’s top health official said he anticipated more cases to arise from the house parties.

A death and a new case of COVID-19 in London, Ontario, have been attributed to the outbreak at University Hospital on the Western University campus.

Ontario to invest $50M in online learning

With remote learning continuing at Ontario universities until at least the fall 2021 term, the province has stepped up funding in educational technology to the tune of $50 million. In an announcement on Friday, Minister of College and Universities Ross Romano said that this first-of-its-kind investment from Ontario would provide “dedicated funding” to publicly funded postsecondary institutions and Indigenous institutes.

According to a press release, the new funding will support the research and development of educational technologies; remote access to Ontario institutions for international students; the development of micro-credential programs; and the province’s work on intellectual property development and retention.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of high-quality and accessible virtual learning. In the early days of the pandemic, our sector’s immediate and short-term response to building upon our virtual needs was an absolutely necessary step to guaranteeing the academic continuity of our students and ensuring that no one lost a year of study,” Mr. Romano said. “It became abundantly clear during that time that Ontario could once again demonstrate our world-renowned leadership in postsecondary education by developing our own ‘Ontario Made’ virtual strategy with education that is flexible and responsive to the needs of the labour market.”

The province developed a virtual learning strategy as part of its COVID-19 action plan.

Alberta injects $20M in U of Alberta virology research led by Nobel laureate

In the wake of Michael Houghton’s Nobel Prize win in October, the Government of Alberta announced last week that it has reserved $20 million in new funding for the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta, where Dr. Houghton holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and is the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology.

Premier Jason Kenney said the money will help to “grow Alberta’s life sciences and biotech industries into a global force to create good jobs here for the province, and draw fresh investment and brilliant people from around the world.” He also noted that COVID-19 has made clear the importance of investing in Alberta-based health research and in pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. According to U of A’s Folio website, the province has invested more than $30 million in the Li Ka Shing institute since the research centre opened 10 years ago.

Queen’s faces $30M deficit

Queen’s University estimates a nearly $30-million deficit in its operating budget for the 2020-21 academic year. The university has chalked up the bulk of this deficit to revenue shortfalls in services like hospitality and housing as well as athletics, and to increased costs related to the pandemic. Donna Janiec, vice-principal, finance and administration, also noted the impact of reduced investment income due to unstable markets this year.

Pandemic blamed for layoffs at U of Lethbridge

With the holiday break just around the corner, the University of Lethbridge has let go 13 employees. It says the layoffs are a direct response to an unstable financial situation in the wake of COVID-19. The university further explained the decision in a public statement:

“The University of Lethbridge has made the difficult decision to permanently lay off 13 employees because of lack of work, 10 of which had been on temporary layoff for the previous three months. The university regrets deeply decisions such as these but must address the fiscal realities it currently faces.”

The layoffs will affect 12 caretakers and one administrative support person as of January 4, 2021.

Quebec academics sign open letter asking province to lock down over holidays

Last week, dozens of academics from Université de Montréal, Université Laval, Université de Sherbrooke, McGill University, HEC Montréal and the Université du Québec system signed an open letter urging the Quebec government to put the province “on pause” for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The extreme measures are the only way to save lives in the province, the letter-writers state. They argue that with so many workplaces, businesses and schools closed anyway during the December holidays, the province is better off implementing a strict lockdown now rather than in January or February, when mental health and the economy could benefit from fewer restrictions in order to counter a post-holiday slump.

December 9, 2020

COVID-19 cases on campus

The University of Calgary has a new case in its community. The university was informed on Friday.

London Health Sciences Centre confirmed two new cases of COVID-19 related to the ongoing outbreak at University Hospital located on the Western University campus. There are now 72 patients and 61 staff and health-care providers at the hospital that have tested positive for COVID-19.

UPEI suspends most in-person activities as cases rise in the province

On Monday, the University of Prince Edward Island moved to an essential-services model, which suspended in-person classes for two weeks. Most courses have already been taking place online, with some lab-based courses excepted.

The university made the change in response to an outbreak in the province involving Charlottetown residents aged 20 to 29. Public health confirmed four new cases in the greater Charlottetown area were announced on Monday, and seven cases over the weekend. PEI’s Chief Public Health Office implemented a series of restrictions. Heather Morrison, Chief Public Health Officer, has encouraged individuals in their 20s living in the area to get tested for COVID-19.

“The good news is that, because we did it in the spring, we’re not unaccustomed to it at this point,” Donna Sutton, associate vice-president of students and registrar, told CBC. “We’re just about at the end of our regularly scheduled classes, and exams are slated to start soon, so the actual class time that will have to pivot is minimal.”

Provincial aid recipients in N.S. to receive one-time student grant

The Government of Nova Scotia will give some 13,000 students a grant of $750 to help cover expenses this school year. Students receiving Nova Scotia Student Assistance in 2020-21 will also receive the one-time grant. The funds will be distributed in January.

Students face delays in accessing federal loan repayment assistance

The National Student Loan Centre has been fielding more student inquiries than ever. As the loans centre deals with an unprecedented volume of calls, students are experiencing delays in customer service. According to a Canadian Press article, the loans centre is facing backlog of more than 30,000 applications for repayment assistance, which allows borrowers to delay Canada Student Loan repayments until they are earning at least $25,000 a year. The financial aid agency received more than 169,000 applications to the assistance program since October 1, when the federal government’s blanket suspension on loan repayments ended. Of those application received by late November, 30,600 had yet to be processed.

Vaccine manufacturing facility delayed

Back in late March, the federal government promised $275 million for the research, development and production of medical equipment and treatments for COVID-19 as well as a vaccine. An estimated $15 million had been earmarked for upgrades to the National Research Council’s Human Health Therapeutics biomanufacturing facility in Montreal for the mass manufacturing of vaccine candidates. In May, the NRC announced a partnership with CanSino Biologics Inc., a Chinese vaccine producer, intended to expedite the development and production of a Canadian-made vaccine candidate. In this deal, the NRC had agreed to provide proprietary biomaterial to the CanSino vaccine trials. That deal eventually fell through.

An article published by the National Post last week explains how, despite $44 million in funding for vaccine-manufacturing capacity, the NRC remains without adequate infrastructure for this kind of mass production.

December 7, 2020

COVID-19 cases on campus

The University of Windsor has reported another confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus. This latest case is unrelated to previously reported cases. One case was reported already at the institution this month, and 10 cases were reported in November.

The month-long outbreak at London’s University Hospital, located on the Western University campus, has reached a new floor of the facility. On Saturday, the hospital declared an outbreak on a seventh unit – the cardiology wing. Hospital operator London Health Sciences Centre confirmed 64 patients and 49 health-care workers or support staff had tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of the outbreak. Thirteen people have died.

On December 5, the University of Calgary alerted the public to three new cases on campus. One involved a person at the Health Sciences Building on the Foothills campus; another at the Science B, Earth Sciences and Mac Hall on main campus; and the third at the Sports Medicine Centre in Kinesiology B.

The University of Waterloo has reported a new case.

Ontario grants exemption allowing some health-care classes at postsecondary institutions

In the update posted on December 2, we told you that a number of Ontario postsecondary institutions had been lobbying the provincial government to exempt them from a rule limiting lab-based and other in-person courses in the Toronto and Peel regions to groups of 10. The rule, they said, meant that several students in hands-on programs in these regions would not be able to graduate and find work in their fields in a timely fashion. On Sunday, the Toronto Star reported that the province will now allow these programs to hold meetings with more than 10 people present in class, provided they follow typical pandemic restrictions, such as physical distancing rules. The Star notes that the exemption only applies to health-related fields like medicine, nursing, paramedicine, respiratory therapy and personal support. It doesn’t include skilled trades programs.

Academics on Ontario’s provincial vaccine task force

The Government of Ontario revealed on Friday who will serve on its vaccine distribution task force. Its nine members will oversee the planning for the storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the province. The group includes two university-affiliated researchers: Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and an assistant professor at Western University, and Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto. Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of manufacturing company Linamar and Western’s current chancellor, will also sit on the task force.

COVID testing site opens at UTSC to serve hard-hit region

From December 1 to April 2021, the University of Toronto Scarborough will host a public COVID testing centre. The university, which is located in a residential area, has partnered with the Scarborough Health Network on an assessment centre at UTSC’s Highland Hall to offer testing options for the community. In a press release, the university explained that the health facility will largely operate independently: “The centre will have a separate entrance and exit and will even have separate air, using its own dedicated air system. SHN staff will manage the centre, which will run under the same safety measures and protocols as the organization’s other locations. Hospital staff, in personal protective equipment, will run testing, regularly disinfect the space and equipment, and dispose of garbage.” The centre also has a designated parking and UTSC has implemented controlled access points across campus to discourage non-authorized individuals from entering other UTSC buildings.

U of T researchers seek student participants for study on COVID exposure on campuses

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health are recruiting students living on any of the institution’s three campuses (St. George, Mississauga and Scarborough), or who are regularly on campus, as part of a study on COVID-19 exposure. Until the end of fall term on December 22, the researchers are looking to administer blood tests to a third of eligible students to determine the presence of COVID antibodies. The study will evaluate the difference in the proportion of students who test positive for antibodies in the fall term versus the winter and spring terms. In an interview with U of T News, co-investigator France Gagnon, associate dean of research at the Dalla Lana School, explained that the study aims to “help researchers and public health leaders to understand how much COVID-19 is being spread over time on university campuses.” The results could clarify how semester breaks or other university events might impact COVID spread.

On a somewhat related note, U of T’s Varsity student newspaper notes that student will have access to the university’s quarantine isolation housing program free of charge following the holiday break – the free offer is only open to first-time users of the program. The program normally costs participants a total of about $2,000 for airport transportation, 14-day accommodations, a three-meal-a-day delivery service and regular health checks.

December 2, 2020

COVID-19 cases on campus

The outbreak at University Hospital at the Western University campus has gotten worse. Seven people have died and 83 were infected across seven units at the hospital. The London Free Press reports that three new deaths linked to the outbreak were announced Tuesday. “What we believe happens is that there was just an abundance of transmission within staff — potentially through eating together or something to that effect — that resulted in pretty rapid transmission,” Alex Summers, associate medical officer of health at the Middlesex-London Health Unit, said.

Another outbreak of COVID-19 has been tied to a varsity sports team. Eighteen players on the Mount Royal University men’s hockey team tested positive. The cases include coaching staff and players. Several members of the team are now self-isolating. The Calgary institution says this is the first instance the virus has spread within the campus community – individual cases won’t by publicly reported. The university also notes that provincial restrictions have suspended varsity training until after the new year.

A new case of COVID-19 has been confirmed at the University of Windsor. A total of 10 cases were reported at the institution in November, eight of which have been deemed “resolved.”

An individual at the Physical Plant at the University of Manitoba tested positive for the virus. The individual was on the Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses from November 24 to 26 and asymptomatic.

From November 26 to 29, a person who had been on the University of Toronto’s St. George campus tested positive for COVID-19. The university’s COVID dashboard also notes that a total of two new cases were reported in the U of T community – these individuals “may not have been physically present at the university, and exposure may not have occurred on our campuses. These are simply members of our community who have reported to the Occupational Health & Safety Office that they have tested positive whether they have been on campus or not.”

The University of Calgary has updated its case count by one after an individual in the Health Research Innovation Centre at the Foothills campus tested positive. Their infectious window on campus was November 23.

A third case of COVID has been confirmed at Université de Moncton. The latest individual to contract the virus is self-isolating.

Federal financial update

The federal government released a fall economic statement on Monday in lieu of a full budget announcement. The update presented by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland largely focused on the Liberals’ ongoing financial approach to COVID-19 and its economic fallout. It projects a deficit of $381.6 billion by late March 2021, with the possibility that pandemic-related developments could lead that number to grow.

Among the latest financial plans, the government proposes supports for families with children, renewable energies and green building, policing, long-term care facilities, as well as for COVID testing, vaccine roll-out and the maintenance of emergency funding for individuals and businesses.

Of particular interest to the postsecondary sector is the announcement of new supports for students and young people:

  • The cancellation of interest payments on the federal portion Canada Student Loans and Canada Apprentice Loans for the 2021-22 academic year.
  • An additional $447.5 million for the Canada Summer Jobs program for the creation of 40,000 new job placements next summer, for a total of 120,000 job opportunities for young people.
  • $575.3 million over two years for the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy to help fund 45,300 job placements for youth who have had their employment opportunities affected by the pandemic.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations was generally pleased with the news. However, in a press release published after the economic update, the group called out the federal government for once again failing to include specific aid to international students: “While we are thankful for the investments made, we continue to see gaps in investment for international students and mature learners. Specifically, international students have been completely left out of the government’s COVID-19 aid package, and many continue to face significant barriers to supporting themselves in Canada and accessing work opportunities.”

Also worth noting from the update: the Canada Revenue Agency will allow some taxpayers to claim up to $400 for work-from-home expenses without requiring them to provide detailed documents explaining the deductions. CRA will soon provide more details on the tax deduction.

Students in Peel, Toronto concerned about graduation in light of lockdown

When lockdown measures returned to Toronto and Ontario’s Peel region on November 23, it meant the suspension of lab-based research and experiential education for many students in health care and other practical programs, with groups limited to 10 people. The Toronto Star reports that several postsecondary institutions in the province are petitioning the Ontario government to make an exception to the 10-person rule for them. The Council of Ontario Universities told the Star that its members are “working with the government regarding the new COVID-19 restrictions. The continuation of required in-person, ‘hands-on’ training is vital to ensuring the supply of health-care practitioners critical to Ontario’s hospitals and health-care system.”

SK med students ask province to step up COVID response

Meanwhile, medical students in Saskatchewan have petitioned their provincial government to do more to help curb the spread of COVID-19. “We ask you to further consider the advice of the hundreds of Saskatchewan medical experts and take decisive action to protect the residents of Saskatchewan … The incredible community in this province will rally behind initiatives that protect the lives of their families, their friends, and their neighbours,” reads an open letter signed by more than 100 students at the University of Saskatchewan. The students are asking for calls for an expansion of COVID testing, improved contact-tracing and better public health messaging to combat misinformation about the virus.

Remote learning to continue through summer term at York

York University will extend its remote learning plans for fall/winter into the summer term. Last week the institution’s senate approved the decision, noting that “where remote learning is not able to accommodate course components such as labs, studios or small graduate classes, York will maintain flexibility and make best efforts to accommodate requests for in-person instruction.” Staff will continue to work virtually, unless asked by management to return to campus.

StFX pushes on with in-person exams

Students at St. Francis Xavier University will write their exams in person at the end of the term. According to a Global News report, academic vice-president Kevin B. Wamsley sent an email last week informing students that the Nova Scotia university will complete the semester as planned despite the rising number of COVID cases in the Atlantic region. He added, “Keep calm and study on.” Several students have spoken out against the university’s response.

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