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COVID-19 updates for March 2021

BY UA/AU | MAR 31 2021

March 31, 2021

Don’t gather over Easter

As most universities prepare to close for Good Friday, public health authorities (as well as some premiers) across the country are pleading with people not to gather over the long week. “Historically, we see when we do congregate for our festive events, we do get more cases,” Earl Brown, a virologist at the University of Ottawa said in a CBC interview. “We’re in a stage of increasing spread of the COVID-19 virus so it’s time for increased caution, not increased interactions.” Meanwhile, in British Columbia, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry says COVID-19 infections, particularly among young people, are increasing as the older population is getting vaccinated. This comes after the province announced more restrictive measures on Monday (it’s being called a three-week “circuit breaker”) and the B.C. premier told young people (read: 20 and 30 year-olds) “not to blow it for the rest of us.”

CIHR funding announced for variant research

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research will be receiving $14.3 million to undertake surveillance, sequencing, tracing, and research focused on the COVID-19 virus variants that have been identified in Canada. This includes $5.3 million in supplementary funding for 90 ongoing COVID-19 projects and $9 million for a new national network that will coordinate and align variants research throughout the country. The network, called the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network will be led by Dr. Marc-André Langlois from the University of Ottawa, and will enable the rapid assessment of both the immune response to the virus variants and whether these variants are resistant to existing vaccines. The findings will provide decision makers with guidance regarding drug therapy, vaccine effectiveness, and other public health strategies. This funding is part of the $53 million announced by the federal government in early February.

More COVID cases on campus

The pandemic has been declared “out of control” in Ontario, and the rising number of cases on postsecondary campuses supports that. Since March 29, there are 103 new cases, all in Ontario.

Brock University now has 31 cases linked to students in residence, up from the 22 previously reported. This brings the total to 70 students who are currently isolating.

Fourteen new cases have been reported at Carleton University. Some are students in residence while others are varsity athletes. As a result, all residence lounges are closed until at least April 13. The affected varsity teams will not be practicing until further notice and the athletics centre has been closed.

Waterloo public health announced that 10 people who live on or have visited the UWaterloo campus have tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, they have declared outbreaks at all UWaterloo residences. These new cases are related to a large cluster of cases linked to off-campus gatherings of students and include COVID variants of concern. Currently, there are a total of 21 cases in this outbreak.

The outbreaks we reported on the two Western University’s residences have now doubled to 22 cases, while a third outbreak of seven positive cases was declared at yet another residence. A fourth outbreak was also declared after 10 business school students who attended a social gathering tested positive. Some Western employees have also tested positive. The CBC is reporting that of all of the active cases in London, 20 percent are on Western’s campus. Three-layer non-medical masks will now be distributed to all students in residence, starting today. Employees working within two metres of each other must also wear eye protection (face shield or goggles), as an added protective measure.

Fall plans continue to roll out

Carleton University has started to draft guidelines, plans and procedures for a safe and gradual return to campus in fall 2021. President Benoit-Antoine Bacon stated in a release on March 29 that this would include a significant proportion of courses, as well as seminars and labs. The university’s scenario planning working group is hoping to have more detailed recommendations in April. This will include optimizing ventilation, PPE, cleaning, campus signage, traffic flow as well as taking overall preparation of buildings and student study spaces into account.

On March 26, McMaster University provost and vice-president, academic, Susan Tighe provided a “mid-planning update.” The aim is to have students come to campus regularly throughout the fall semester, “whether to attend an in-person class or learning opportunity, access the library, exercise in the gym, grab lunch or a coffee, access student supports and services, or meet in small groups to collaborate on assignments or participate in a student club.” The update also states that residences will be open and faculties, departments and programs will have some flexibility to decide what modes of delivery work best for their students.

Memorial University also plans to have students back on campus for September. Mark Abrahams, provost and vice-president, academic pro tempore, stated in a message on March 26 that detailed planning is ongoing and the university will continue to follow public health requirements, which could include the use of non-medical face masks, physical distancing and other public health measures.

York University has introduced a “Transitional Remote Work Policy for Staff.” The implementation began Mar. 28, with a goal to create more flexibility for staff, stronger engagement, satisfaction and productivity in daily work. Between now and the end of May, staff will be contacted by managers to determine their interest in remote work arrangements for the upcoming summer, fall and winter terms.

CBU to welcome everyone back to campus for Spring semester

Back in early February, we reported that Cape Breton University was slowly bringing staff and students back to their campus. Now, the plan is to have everyone back for full-time in-person learning for their spring semester starting May 3. According to the Chronicle Herald, all public health safety directives will be followed, including social-distancing, mask-wearing and encouraging frequent hand washing. That being said, there will be four different delivery models of study for students: in-person; online at a scheduled time; online not at a scheduled time; and both in-person and online.

Cheating software continues to cause problems

At the beginning of March, we wrote about the problems online anti-cheating software like Respondus were causing for students, notably at the University of Alberta and McMaster. Now the University of New Brunswick Student Union is joining the conversation, stating that there are concerns about security and privacy when it comes to these types of programs. “It is a lot for a student to not only turn on their camera and kind of let someone into their home that way, but allow it to be recorded,” Sean Mackenzie, UNB student union president told the CBC. Used mostly during exams, Respondus is downloaded onto a student’s computer and takes control of on-screen activity, the microphone and webcam. It is designed to catch and deter cheating by restricting computer functions.

March 29, 2021

COVID-19 measures related to incoming travel leading to further reduction of international students

The federal government’s measures to have all international travel funnelled through four airports in Canada and have travellers pay for a three-day quarantine in a nearby hotel to limit the number of new cases of COVID-19 entering Canada is causing many international students to either cancel or postpone their plans to study in Canada, reports the Canadian Press.

Overall enrolment at Canadian universities dropped by 2.1 percent this year compared to last year, according to Universities Canada president Paul Davidson, who added that in the last five years, the growth in the number of international students attending Canadian universities grew by about 10 per cent each year.

“We have 96 universities at Universities Canada, and 51 of those institutions saw a decline in the international students […] Overall, 26 institutions saw a loss of over 10 per cent of their international students,” Mr. Davidson is quoted as saying.

In addition to reduced revenue for postsecondary institutions, having fewer international students will lead to less programs being offered and eventually create a gap in the labour force.

According to Statistics Canada, the total number of international students in Canada declined about 17 percent in 2020, from 639,000 to 531,000.

Mr. Davidson said all international students, from kindergarten to PhDs, contribute about $22 billion to the Canadian economy.

Cases on campus

Since the last update, 90 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported on university campuses, all of them in Ontario.

A COVID-19 outbreak was declared by Niagara Region Public Health in student residences at Brock University. The case count has climbed from one on March 24, to 22 at last report. The university has moved from Stage 2 (control) to Stage 1 (lockdown). The few in-person classes it was delivering have been moved online until at least April 5. Some on-campus common areas and all athletic facilities have been temporarily closed while contact tracing and further investigation take place.

Queen’s University has adopted additional measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 on campus including implementing asymptomatic testing for students on and off campus this past week, closing its athletics centre, reducing its food services and common study spaces on campus.

From March 8 to 23, 86 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the university, most of them from the variants of concern. Queen’s said it was taking action against students for violating COVID-19 regulations, evicting some students from residence while 40 were going through the non-academic discipline process. “Sadly, the poor choices of a relatively small group of students have influenced public perceptions of our whole student body,” said Queen’s principal and vice-chancellor Patrick Deane.

The University of Waterloo reported five new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total to six. Three of the cases are of students living in residence while the other two are students living off campus. As a result, the local health authority declared an outbreak in the university’s residence buildings.

Outbreaks were also declared in two residences at Western University. Seven cases were reported in one residence while four were reported in another residence. The university said it was providing on-site testing for students on the affected floors and that floor lounges and study rooms at both residences were closed.

The University of Windsor placed students living in its Alumni Hall residence under “modified quarantine” after wastewater sampling tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend. Students are being asked to avoid close contact with others and follow all public health measures.

Five students living in separate residences at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 24.

The University of Regina is putting a stop to in-person classes until at least April 12, in response to the province’s latest public health order. Classes will be moved online and will affect about 600 students.

McMaster University reported two new cases of COVID-19 among its staff members.

Fall 2021 planning

Concordia University of Edmonton said it is planning for a full return on campus in the fall but may also offer some virtual programming and services.

The University of Windsor formed an Action Group on Fall Return, focused on “maximizing opportunities for students to have on-campus experiences in the fall, and with a continued focus on health and safety.”

March 24, 2021

COVID-19 cases on campus

A student living in campus housing has tested positive for COVID-19 at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Mount Allison University has reported a positive case of COVID-19 involving a variant of concern. As a result, the university has cancelled “non-essential activities” and closed the library and athletic centre. In-person classes will continue with public health precautions, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing in place. The university confirmed that the affected person lives off campus, but had visited the campus athletic centre and Thornton House residence.

For the week of March 18 to 21, the University of Toronto’s COVID dashboard reports one new active case of COVID-19 at the Mississauga campus and five cases at the St. George campus in downtown Toronto.

A member of the Brock University community has tested positive for COVID-19. That person last visited public areas on campus on March 19.

Two international students at McMaster University have tested positive for COVID. The cases are unrelated.

So far this week, the COVID case tracker at Queen’s University is reporting six new cases – one in residence and five off campus.

The University of Waterloo has posted information about a new case in the community. The COVID-positive individual visited campus on March 12. The case was confirmed on March 22. As reported in Monday’s update, the U of Waterloo is also dealing with an outbreak in campus housing.

Local COVID-19 cases prompt U of Regina to return to remote teaching

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Saskatchewan’s capital city, the University of Regina will temporarily cancel all in-person courses and resume online learning. The change in format will start on March 29 and last until April 12. Although the university will maintain some campus services, including individual study spaces for students and WiFi hotspots, administration has asked all students, faculty and staff members to work from home, if possible.

The news also comes a week after an outbreak was declared at Luther College High School, the secondary school based at Luther College, a federated college located on the U of Regina campus.

U of Windsor starts COVID-19 testing pilot

This week, the University of Windsor kicked off a pilot program to test if rapid COVID-19 testing on-campus helps to stem cases within the university community. Participants provide a saliva sample for weekly testing. Researchers deliver test results to the participants through a mobile app.

Chemistry professor Yufeng Tong developed the rapid PCR test being used for the project with funding from a WE-Spark Health Institute grant. “Screening asymptomatic people is critical to ensuring students can come back for face-to-face learning,” lead researcher and biomedical science professor Lisa Porter told the Windsor Star.

Researchers involved with the pilot believe this is the first project of its kind at a university in Ontario. They are working in collaboration with scientists at Vanderbilt University in the United States.

March 22, 2021

Ontario launches new funding for institutions impacted by COVID-19, expands OSAP to continuing ed

The Ontario government has promised $106.4 million to help colleges and universities address financial hardships due to COVID-19. In a press release, the government explained that the funding will allow for “immediate and targeted support for postsecondary institutions that are most affected by decreases in tuition and ancillary revenues and have incurred expenses associated with online learning, personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning.” Recipients may also put the funding towards the 2020-21 academic year to “offset COVID-19 expenses related to student financial supports and human resources.”

In a prepared statement, Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said the fund was established “to maintain Ontario’s position as a global leader in higher education.” He also noted that the province’s postsecondary sector is essential to Ontario’s economic rebound.

Twenty-two postsecondary institution, 10 universities among them, have qualified for the new funding. The list of recipients is available on the government of Ontario website, and includes small-to-medium sized universities such as Algoma University ($4.8 million), Brock University ($7.9 million) and the University of Windsor ($7.6 million).

The province also announced that it has expanded eligibility rules under the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) to cover a variety of micro-credential programs. Students in nearly 600 of these targeted, short-term continuing education programs will now qualify for provincial loans as they return to the classroom to upgrade their skills. Though the loans are open to anyone attending one of the approved micro-credential programs, Mr. Romano said the government decided to expand OSAP eligibility specifically to help Ontarians who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The OSAP website has a list of all eligible micro-credential programs organized by institution. Courses at 10 universities and 13 colleges have made the cut so far. They include classes in advanced manufacturing and outdoor education at McMaster University, training in DNA skills at Lakehead University and a variety of digital technology courses at Wilfrid Laurier University.

New grant for students with disabilities in N.S. to help cover pandemic-related costs

Last week, the government of Nova Scotia launched the COVID-19 Accessibility Grant, a financial aid program that delivers $800 each to some 3,000 postsecondary students with permanent disabilities. The one-time grant is intended to support students with permanent disabilities to offset “new costs arising from remote-learning and other learning environment changes,” which may include ergonomic equipment, training and tech support for assistive technology and specialized software programs, technology upgrades, and fees for note-taking or tutoring.

U of T retroactively increases pay to those affected by pandemic salary freeze

The University of Toronto will retroactively increase the salaries of unionized employees whose pay was frozen due to pandemic-related budget-tightening. The one-percent pay bump applies to staff members covered by one-year collective agreement extension, negotiated in fall 2020, that saw their employment terms and conditions frozen due to COVID-19.

The extension was struck to allow the university time to determine the financial impacts COVID-19 has had on revenue. It has since determined that “the university has not been as negatively impacted by the pandemic as had been feared last year.” The university noted that enrolment in particular remained fairly steady throughout the pandemic. “In these circumstances, U of T has determined that it will be able to provide a one per cent increase in compensation, retroactive to July 1, 2020.”

COVID-19 cases on campus

An outbreak of COVID-19 in Waterloo, Ontario, has been traced to a cluster of cases involving students at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Last week, Waterloo Public Health connected at least 23 COVID-19 cases to several social gatherings attended by students between March 4 and 7. Global News further reports that outbreaks were declared at U of Waterloo’s Claudette Millar Hall residence, where three students have tested positive, and at Laurier’s Clara Conrad Residence located in Waterloo.

On Friday, Peterborough Public Health declared a new outbreak of COVID-19 in student housing at Trent University. The outbreak at Gzowski College is unrelated to a previous outbreak at Trent’s Champlain College residence, which was declared on March 4. It’s not clear how many cases this latest outbreak involves.

Peterborough is also reeling from an outbreak at a privately run student housing complex near Fleming College. Last week, the outbreak at Severn Court Student Residence, which was reported on Feb. 20, claimed the life of 31-year-old Fleming student, Zachary Root.

Meanwhile, Kingstonist has referred to the Queen’s University community as a “COVID hotspot” in the city of Kingston, Ontario. The website points out that data posted to the Queen’s case tracker shows cases of COVID-19 in the Queen’s community tripled in a week, with 60 total cases as of Sunday. The spread among the student population contributed to the local public health authority’s decision to strengthen pandemic restrictions starting today.

Alberta wants students back to campus this fall

The Alberta government expects the province’s postsecondary institutions to return to on-campus learning this fall. “I encourage all postsecondary institutions, students and families, to prepare for a full return to on-campus learning this September,” Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides said in a press release last week. He cited the province’s plan to have administered a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to all adult Albertans by late June.

“As we plan to transition back to in-person learning, the safety of students, staff and faculty will be our top priority.”

Nicolaides said the ministry is working with Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, to ensure a safe return to campuses in September.

March 16, 2021

COVID cases on campus

Dozens of new cases of COVID-19 in London, Ontario, have been tied to Western University students. An outbreak of 45 cases so far have been traced to 10 house parties held off campus between March 2 and 6, up from 22 cases reported last week. Public health has confirmed that fraternities and sororities were involved in these large gatherings, though some of the cases involve students living in campus housing.

In a message sent out last week, Jennifer Massey, Western’s associate vice-president, student experience, asked students not to host gatherings this week in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. “If you’re going to joyfully welcome the start of spring with a few festivities, be sure not to inadvertently invite COVID to your party. It leaves the worst hangover that lasts for weeks,” she wrote before signing off with: “Vaccines are coming. Stay hopeful. Play smart.” Meanwhile, a message circulated by Western communications cautioned students to “remain vigilant.”

At least 20 cases of COVID-19 in Kingston, Ontario, have been traced to Queen’s University students. The cases involve two separate clusters of cases, some of which involve students living in on-campus housing.

The local health unit declared an outbreak at the university’s Watts Hall on Thursday after several students living on the same floor tested positive. The university moved students from the floor to self-isolation accommodations and locked down the building. At the time the region reported 10 cases involving students living both on and off campus, and the university noted that there was no evidence the virus had been transmitted through large gatherings but rather had likely spread through close contacts. Since then, the number of cases has doubled and public health has identified 14 of these cases as “variants of concern.” Over the weekend, Kingston’s Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, broke down how the virus spread from the infected students to other members of the local community.

Because the cases involve highly infectious variants of SARS-CoV-2, the university and public health are “strongly encouraging” students who have been “in close contact with someone outside their household without wearing a face covering or physical distancing, to get tested during the next two weeks, even if they are not experiencing symptoms.” They’re also asking that anyone who has travelled outside of the region, or who has had visitors from outside of the region, to self-isolate for 14 days.

Trent University has also been managing two different clusters of COVID-19 involving students since the start of the month. On Monday, the institution reported six active cases in the community – five in its Champlain College student residence and one off-campus, possibly linked to a significant outbreak at a private student residence in town.

Two staff members at McMaster University have tested positive for COVID-19.

Brock University has reported a single new case as of last week.

Brock offers “second chance” at first-year experience

More news out of Brock: the university is extending its housing guarantee for incoming first-year undergraduate students and to a limited number of second-year students. Student housing will hold 200 rooms this fall for sophomores who “missed out on the quintessential on-campus university experience during their first year” due to the pandemic.

“We are working to have all residence buildings open safely this fall,” Jamie Fleming, director of residences, said. “We are mindful that there may still need to be some measures in place to manage COVID-19. Even if that is necessary, we are confident the residence experience will be as engaging and vibrant as ever.”

March 11, 2021

March 11: A day of remembrance

Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

At this time last year, several universities had cancelled most work-related travel and study-abroad programs but only Laurentian University had decided to suspend in-person learning. Two days later, on March 13, several universities across the country had followed Laurentian’s lead and Quebec had officially cancelled all classes in the province “for two weeks.” In the United States, more than 200 universities and colleges had cancelled on-campus classes, with plans to transition courses online platforms.

Since then, there has been more than 22,000 COVID-19-related deaths in Canada and over 900,000 total cases of the disease. More than 2.6 million people worldwide have died of COVID-19.

To mark this grim anniversary, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named March 11 a National Day of Observance for COVID-19 and delivered a speech in the House of Commons. In his statement, Mr. Trudeau said the day “honour[s] every individual who lost their life to this disease, and we stand with the people they loved as they continue to cope with this unimaginable loss. Together, we also recognize all who have been impacted by the pandemic, and we reaffirm our commitment to work as Team Canada to beat this virus.”

The prime minister also noted several programs and emergency measures the federal government created in the past year, thanked front-line workers, touted “the largest immunization campaign” currently underway in the country, and repeated calls for the public to continue following public health orders.

The province of Quebec is also formally recognizing March 11 as a day of mourning. To date, the province has reported more than 10,500 COVID-related deaths and nearly 295,000 total COVID cases.

The provincial government is holding a ceremony in the National Assembly and Premier François Legault has asked Quebecers to observe a moment of silence at 1 p.m. Several universities in the province will participate in commemorative events, including Université de Montréal, McGill University, Bishop’s University.

March 10, 2021

Tri-agency funding news

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has announced a new federal funding package to address gaps in COVID-19 research.

“As the pandemic has evolved, so have the research needs of decision-makers. There are important research gaps in Canada’s response that have become evident; gaps that need to be addressed rapidly and in a sustained manner to respond effectively to the pandemic. In order to achieve its goals, the Government of Canada will launch several funding opportunities under the ‘Emerging COVID-19 Research Gaps and Priorities’ banner to address the identified research gaps in Canada,” reads the program notice, which was posted on March 3.

The government has identified gaps in six research areas (and 15 subtopics in these areas) in consultation with researchers, government departments, arm’s-length agencies and various federal advisory committees. The general research areas include COVID-19 variants, vaccines, trust in public health and science, COVID long-haulers, testing in congregant settings, and infection prevention in long-term care facilities.

CIHR notes that total funding available “for this and upcoming COVID-19 Research Gaps and Priorities competitions” is nearly $119 million. Researchers can request up to $1,000,000 (over one year) per grant for a clinical trial or a randomized control trial. All other research may qualify for up to a maximum of $500,000 per grant over one year.

The deadline for a letter of intent is March 15, while the full application deadline is April 15. CIHR expects competition results to be released on June 16.

The same day that CIHR announced that new funding program, it also launched a much-anticipated tri-agency funding opportunity for research on vaccine hesitancy. CIHR, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council released preliminary details about the competition in February Last Wednesday, they officially opened the $2.25-million competition. The application deadline is April 5.

Feds say wage support program helped some 32,000 research staff

On Friday, the federal government provided an update on the Canada Research Continuity Emergency Fund (CRCEF), created last May to help researchers cover unanticipated costs associated with maintaining or adapting research efforts during the pandemic, and to keep research staff on payroll.

Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne said the government provided $415 million through the CRCEF. That includes wage relief that helped to support up to 32,000 research staff “whose salaries were adversely affected by COVID-19, and who were not eligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.” The program covered up to 75 percent of an employee’s wage for 24 weeks, to a maximum of $847 per week. The announcement noted that among the research staff who received the wage subsidy, nearly 9,300 were students, 3,000 were postdoctoral fellows and 19,500 were “other research personnel.”

CRCEF, which was administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, supported some 22,000 research projects at 65 universities and 61 health-research institutions.

U of Saskatchewan’s COVID field hospital to host mass vaccination clinic

The University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Health Authority are preparing a campus sports and health facility to serve as a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Once the clinic is up and running at the university’s Merlis Belsher Place, it could distribute up to 1,400 vaccinations per day, according to the provincial health unit.

The province had originally leased the 120,000-square foot facility to use as an emergency field hospital. The site has already been equipped with advanced ventilation systems, room dividers and some hospital equipment to care for some 250 COVID-19 patients, if needed. In December, the centre was redeployed to vaccinate frontline health-care workers.

More fall plans

Acadia University is banking on a full return to campus this fall. University president Peter Ricketts announced yesterday that the institution is in a “strong position for continued success and a return to the more traditional on-campus experience in the fall of 2021.”

Dr. Ricketts asked that faculty, staff and students begin preparing for in-person learning at the Nova Scotia institution this September. However, he also noted that “some courses may start the term in a virtual or hybrid format and will pivot to fully in-person classes as the term progresses and the province eases restrictions.”

Similarly, the University of British Columbia is preparing for “a return to on-campus instruction and increased levels of on-campus research activity” in September. President Santa Ono sent the message following the release of new provincial guidelines for returning to in-person operations at postsecondary institutions. The timelines provided by the province suggest that most British Columbians should have received their vaccinations by mid-summer. For now, he noted, faculty and staff should continue to work remotely at this time unless otherwise directed by the faculty or unit.

Several other institutions in B.C. have also released statements about fall 2021 now that the province has weighed in on safe school re-openings. Most are acknowledging that in-person instruction is a priority, but haven’t yet clarified their plans are for the semester (see announcements from Vancouver Island University, Thompson Rivers University, Simon Fraser University, the University of Northern British Columbia and Capilano University).

A few in the province have opted for a more confident message: University of Victoria president Kevin Hall is “excited to share that UVic is planning for a full return to face-to-face teaching and learning this September.” He adds, “I look forward to welcoming you all to campus this September. It’s going to be a great year!” Meanwhile, Trinity Western University is “actively planning for a return to face-to-face instruction and activities in fall 2021.”

Yesterday, higher-ed analyst and consultant Ken Steele published a round-up of fall announcements made in the past week or so.

Canadian scientists volunteer for COVID-related Q&As

Canadian researchers have been volunteering their time and expertise to help answer the public’s burning COVID questions. COVID-19 Resources Canada – a grassroots online platform built last year by “highly skilled personnel across Canada’s diverse healthcare, research, policy, industry, and partner communities” – has recruited scientists, physicians and pharmacists to spend a couple of hours fielding COVID-related questions from Canadians. The organization hosts the public Q&A sessions (called “kitchen table discussions”) seven days a week over Zoom.

March 8, 2021

COVID cases on campus

Peterborough’s public health authority declared an outbreak of COVID-19 in student housing at Trent University. As of March 5, five cases had been traced back to Champlain College residence, located on Trent’s Symons Campus. The local health unit has reportedly linked the Champlain College outbreak to a concurrent outbreak at Severn Court, a privately owned, off-campus housing complex for students attending Trent and Fleming College. The outbreak at Severn Hall has grown to at least 45 cases since last week, with 34 of those cases identified as COVID variants of concern.

According to a KawarthaNews report, Trent has been managing the two outbreaks separately: “The health unit has also noted that there are two separate groups of students at Trent University related to the two outbreaks: Trent students who were exposed at Severn Court and are now self-isolating at the Otonabee College residence, and Trent students exposed at the Champlain College residence who are now self-isolating there. The first group of Trent students is not being counted as part of the Champlain College outbreak.”

Several students at the University of Victoria are self-isolating after being exposed to COVID-19 at an off-campus party on February 27-28. UVic posted a notice about the exposure to its website last week and noted that the local public health authority “has confirmed there is no evidence of on-campus transmission at this time.” However, an unidentified student living in residence contradicted this message, telling the Times-Colonist that they believed at least two other students in residence had tested positive.

A student at McMaster University has tested positive for COVID-19. The student was alerted to the test results on March 5. That student had last been on campus on at the Institute for Applied Health Sciences.

Fall plans

The University of Toronto is planning the return of many in-person activities for September, including teaching and research. In a message sent to the community last week, senior administration confirmed that its aim is to “support faculty, librarians and staff to return to campus [this fall] in order to collaborate with colleagues and interact with students while preserving some of the best innovations of the past year in terms of technology and flexible work arrangements.”

Plans are underway at the University of Saskatchewan to bring back some level of in-person instruction this fall. In an update posted online last week, president Peter Stoicheff said he’s “optimistic” about the return to campus: “I am confident we will see a significant increase to in-person, on-campus instruction for Fall 2021. Due to current uncertainties around vaccine roll-out in this province and beyond, we cannot at this stage say exactly what the proportion of face-to-face versus remote program delivery will be in the fall term. However, the increasing number of vaccinations, combined with continued health and safety measures in the province … will enable a graduated return to our campuses beginning in September for many students, faculty, and staff.” While a final decision about fall 2021 courses will be made by May, he added that he expects a full return to in-person “program delivery” by winter 2022.

More issues concerning online exam proctoring come to light

Students at universities across the country are once again airing their concerns about online exam proctoring services. A student union representative at the University of Alberta has suggested that these anti-cheating web platforms are intimidating and have adverse effects on student performance during exams. “Fundamentally, what this software does is it tries to prevent cheating. But all it does instead is make it so that you’re more scared and the assessments themselves are less effective,” David Draper, University of Alberta Students’ Union vice-president academic, told the CBC.

At McMaster University, students have levelled similar accusations at online invigilation program Respondus. McMaster’s student government has raised questions about data security and privacy issues. Students there have also flagged the added anxiety caused by the program’s facial recognition function, how it interprets gestures and body language.

Meanwhile, a 600-person accounting class at the University of British Columbia will be retaking a midterm exam after some students were accused of cheating. Administrators at UBC’s Sauder School of Business decided the makeup test would be the fairest solution to the issue after several students claimed that the instructor had given misleading instructions for what was supposed to be an open-book exam. The decision has also sparked several “unkind” and “disappointing” messages from students (one student reported that the professor had said she’d received death threats).

March 3, 2021

COVID cases on campus

The Middlesex-London Health Unit has declared an outbreak of COVID-19 at Western University’s Essex Hall. So far, seven students living in the residence hall have tested positive for COVID-19. The building is currently home to 338 students. According to Western, students who have tested positive and some of their close contacts have been relocated to a quarantine location outside of the building. “Out of an abundance of caution, the university is also providing on-site testing to other students isolating in place on the affected floors in Essex,” the university said in a statement posted to the Western website yesterday. This isn’t the first time Western has managed a COVID outbreak in student housing. The university dealt with simultaneous outbreaks in Saugeen-Maitland Hall and Perth Hall in late November, and an outbreak in London Hall last October. Western delayed residence move-in for the winter 2021 term until after reading week, with students returning on a staggered schedule as of February.

The outbreak at a privately owned student residence complex in Peterborough continues to grow. At least 34 cases have now been tied to a party at Severn Court, an off-campus apartment complex targeted to students from nearby Fleming College and Trent University. Peterborough’s medical officer of health is now considering police involvement and other “enforcement” options. Of the 34 cases reported on Tuesday, 29 involve Fleming students and five are Trent students who don’t live at Severn Court. Trent is reporting seven active cases in its community – six involving students living on campus and one student living off campus.

Two international students at McMaster University have tested positive for COVID. The university says that the students had already been in quarantine since their arrival in Canada in February and that the cases are unrelated.

An individual who visited the University of Waterloo on February 23 has since tested positive for COVID-19.

Vaccine clinics come to campus

On March 1, the University of Toronto at Mississauga opened a COVID vaccination clinic in partnership with Trillium Health Partners and Peel Public Health. In a press release, UTM notes that the clinic has the capacity to offer 2,000 inoculations a day, with the possibility of doubling capacity by spring. A clinic is also in the works for U of T Scarborough. The clinics are run by public health with coordination support provided by U of T staff, clinicians and faculty members led by the department of family and community medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the university’s hospital partners.

Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus will host two mass vaccination clinics. Administered by Brant County Health Unit, the clinics are scheduled to open next week.

Meanwhile, Dalhousie University is playing its part in Nova Scotia’s vaccine roll out by providing the province with ultra-cold storage for up to 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Université de Sherbrooke creates prize honouring researcher who died from COVID-19

Université de Sherbrooke has established a $1,500-bursary in honour of a faculty member who died of COVID-19 in April. Huy Hao Dao, a public health researcher with the university’s faculty of medicine, is believed to be one of the first physicians in the province of Quebec to die from COVID. The Prix Huy Hao Dao will be awarded to a graduate student in public health.

Fall plans

Brock University reports that it is “planning a return to campus for the fall term, with classes offered primarily on campus and residence, dining and campus life services returning to normal operations.”

The University of Ottawa “has an ambitious plan to provide a full, enriching on-campus experience with an increased number of courses to be delivered in person or using hybrid formats.” The university will equip classrooms with “educational technology that will allow for simultaneous in-person and video conferencing teaching” and will also expand residence, recreational, student service and academic support offerings for fall.

Western University president Alan Shephard says he expects a “return to face-to-face instruction, and more of the on-campus experiences we all love, this coming September.” One residence hall will be converted to suite-style housing for first-year students. He notes, however, that the institution cannot predict with any certainty what the fall will bring, “our community will provide the engaging experience our students and their families value – all in a research and learning environment that everyone expects of a world-class university like Western.”

The University of Prince Edward Island will return to a “more normal” teaching and learning environment this fall, the CBC reports. This week, UPEI will allow some in-person activities to resume on campus.

March 1, 2021

COVID cases at Trent traced to outbreak at private, off-campus student residence

Four students at Trent University’s campus in Peterborough, Ontario, have tested positive for COVID-19. The students attended a gathering at Severn Court Student Residence, a privately owned apartment complex that caters to students from Trent and Fleming College. On Saturday, Peterborough Public Health declared an outbreak after six confirmed cases of COVID were traced to the gathering at the complex of six buildings. By Sunday, that number had jumped to 23 cases, Global News reports.

Initial tests suggest at least one case may involve a variant of SARS-CoV-2. The public health authority is asking anyone who visited Severn Court between February 20 and 27 to self-monitor for COVID symptoms for the next two weeks and two get tested immediately should they develop any symptoms.

Trent has moved the four students, as well as a number of others waiting on test results, to self-isolation rooms in campus housing. The university says it has “proactively put in place on-campus testing for students in our isolation residence who have been confirmed by public health as close contacts and require testing. Our teams in Housing, and Student Services are in contact with affected students and are providing supports to students in isolation and others on campus.”

U of Guelph pilots rapid testing program for students returning to residence

Last week, the University of Guelph partnered with the Government of Ontario to offer a temporary rapid-testing program for students return to residence after reading week. The province provided 4,000 antigen tests for two rapid mobile testing clinics administered on campus February 26 and 27 by the university’s student health services employees. Positive results will be sent out for additional lab testing while these students self-isolate and their close contacts are alerted. The partnership with the province means the university is now also participating in what U of Guelph describes as an “eight-week COVID-19 rapid testing screening program for faculty, staff and students required to be on campus. Under this program, begun in early February, participants undergo the rapid antigen test twice a week.”

From late January to mid-February, U of Guelph’s struggled to manage an outbreak of COVID-19 in its student residence population. More than 60 cases were tied to two unsanctioned social gatherings in campus housing. Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health declared the outbreak over as of February 17. The university is currently reporting no active cases of COVID-19 on its campus.

Memorial relaxes some research restrictions

Last month, Memorial University abruptly halted its return to campus plans as Newfoundland and Labrador struggled to contain rising COVID-19 case numbers. Nearly a month later, the St. John’s region remains under Level 5, the most restrictive level of the province’s COVID-19 Alert Level System, and Memorial’s St. John’s campus continues to operate under the highest alert level of its emergency research framework (RED level). This week, the institution will relax some research restrictions, which have effectively permitted only essential and COVID-related research to continue in person. Some researchers whose work requires on-campus access in order to avoid “catastrophic loss”, who perform their work in a workspace that is not shared, or whose research doesn’t require “unreasonable risks” may apply for an exemption to the campus restrictions.

“We are anxious to move ahead with time-critical research that must go ahead, but need to do that with respect for the uncertain situation in the region given community transmission of COVID-19 and the B.1.1.7 variant,” Neil Bose, vice-president (research), said in an announcement posted on Friday. “As the public health situation in the region permits, we will continue to revise the criteria for approving requests so as to facilitate additional research activities.”

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