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COVID-19 updates for May 2020

BY UA/AU | MAY 30 2020

May 29, 2020

CFI suspends COVID-19 funding competition 

On May 26, we reported on a new “Exceptional Opportunities Fund” competition offered by the Canada Foundation for Innovation for research related to COVID-19. The next day, CFI suspended the competitionwhich intended to fund up to $25 million for “urgent needs for equipment for ongoing research related to COVID-19.” 

The foundation explained the decision in a statement posted to its website: “We have received a number of questions from the community and appreciate your feedback. We are taking extra time to consult, evaluate and adjust the call for proposals as necessary. We are dedicated to ensuring this opportunity for funding meets the most urgent needs of Canada’s researchers in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

CIHR competition to proceed remotely this spring 

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s project grant competition will proceed remotely this spring. CIHR president Michael J. Strong issued an update on the competition yesterday in which he confirmed the spring competition will take place with an envelope of $245 million and a few accommodations made for the current crisis. Unlike previous project grant competitions, this spring’s peer review process will take place over the summer via videoconferencing. And though the fall competition may experience some delays, it, too, should be remotely delivered.   

For this to work, we must come together as a community with a singular goal: delivering the highest quality peer review,” Dr. Strong said. “We will need your help in providing peer review for these two competitions, and indeed well into the 2021 cycle. We appreciate that many of you have repeatedly stepped up to assist us in reviewing grants, and that we will be asking you to do so again in rapid succession over three distinct project grant competitions in less than 12 months. Those individuals who were already scheduled to serve as chairs, scientific officers, and reviewers for the spring 2020 competition will be contacted shortly to confirm whether or not they are available to assist with the summer peer review. Beyond this, we will be reaching out to the community in the very near future to seek volunteers who are able to serve as peer reviewers.  

U of Ottawa profs publish free ebook on remote teaching 

As more universities announce fall plans that involve some degree of virtual instruction, now might be a good time to brush up on best practices for remote teaching. Enter the University of Ottawa’s Alison Flynn and Jeremy Kerr.  

Dr. Flynn, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biomolecular sciences, and Dr. Kerr, chair of the biology department, have published a new open textbook on remote learning that includes practical tips and guidance for adapting a face-to-face course to online platforms, compete with templates. The book is based on their experiences this past fall and approaches remote teaching with accessibility top of mind.  

In a recent opinion piece for UA, Dr. Flynn advocates for prioritizing student input in university decision-making  especially as institutions figure out their responses to COVID-19.  

U of Guelph co-leads survey of pandemic response and Canada’s food system  

The University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute have partnered on an investigation of how Canada’s food systems have responded to and fared during the pandemic. Over the summer and fall, researchers will consult with stakeholders from Canada’s food systems – producers, processors, migrant farm workers, retailers, consumers, and more – to create a learning network as well as policy recommendations and topics for new research projects. The team is accepting feedback now through the project website 

“In the post-COVID-19 world, seeking answers to the key question of how to build a resilient Canadian agri-food system will become more urgent than ever, as this crisis brings to light where we successfully adapted as well as revealing hidden vulnerabilities in the Canadian agri-food system,” explained project co-chair and AFI director Evan Fraser. 

Something nice 

If you’re looking for something to keep your energy up through a Friday afternoon, you could do worse than to crank up this rendition of Western University’s fight song. The university’s marching band recorded the song over a videoconference – J.W. the Mustang even shimmies his way into the set.  


May 28, 2020

U of Manitoba enters Phase 2 of return to research activities

The University of Manitoba will allow some employees to return to campus research facilities as of June 1. The gradual reopening of research spaces is part of the “phased” plan for restarting research activities. The institution released an update on the second phase of the plan yesterday. According to the university, most research will continue remotely, and only projects that require access to research spaces will be permitted on campus or field locations. “It is important to note, this is not a return to normal. Rather it is a step to allow those with a compelling need to access laboratories and facilities to do so,” said Digvir Jayas, vice-president, research and international.

In this phase, up to 50 percent of research personnel can be on campus at a time. The institution clarified that it will use staggered scheduling in order to accommodate most access requests. Research staff who return to work must take measures such as physical distancing, wearing a mask where distancing is not possible, and ensuring frequent hand washing and sanitizing.

AB pauses hydroxychloroquine study, McGill presses on

Researchers at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta have temporarily halted a province-wide study on hydroxychloroquine. The team behind the Alberta HOPE COVID-19 trial was investigating the anti-malarial drug as an early intervention for COVID-19. The study had recruited some 150 COVID-positive Albertans to test whether a five-day treatment of the drug, typically used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases, could prevent hospitalization for those at highest risk of developing a severe illness.

The decision to pause the study comes after a paper in the medical journal The Lancet suggested the drug was not effective in treating COVID-19 and may cause heart problems or a greater risk of death. The World Health Organization also announced this week it would cease its study of the drug.

Luanne Metz, a professor of clinical neurology at U of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and principal investigator on the Alberta study, said her team would consult with others doing similar studies to see if the study should continue. She also told CTV News that the trial was also halted due to low participant enrolment – they were aiming to recruit 1,600 patients. Dr. Metz said U.S. President Donald Trump’s praise for the drug has been a factor. “It adds an extra challenge, because we have people that are afraid when they perhaps don’t have a reason to be afraid themselves. … And then we have people that don’t want to be part of something that might prove President Trump correct.”

Researchers at McGill University, however, said they would continue with their trial of hydroxychloroquine despite the findings in The Lancet paper. Emily McDonald, an investigator at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and director of the MUHC Clinical Practice Assessment Unit, told Le Devoir that she had reservations about the paper, namely that it had been a large observational study with some methodological weaknesses. One of her concerns was that the control group did not receive placebos.

She notes that the randomized, double-blind clinical trial taking place at McGill has already registered 1,000 patients, most of whom are young, have no history of chronic illness or heart problems, and whose symptoms are mild enough that they’re recovering at home. She said they also excluded patients taking drugs that don’t interact well with hydroxychloriquine, such as antidepressants and antipsychotics. (The Alberta study had similar parameters in place.)

Ventilator co-designed by Queen’s Nobel laureate wins federal contract

The federal government has just ordered 10,000 ventilators of a new design conceived in part by a Canadian research team led by Nobel laureate Art McDonald. The astrophysicist and Queen’s University professor won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for his work on neutrinos. But since the pandemic hit, Dr. McDonald had been working with colleagues at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario, the TRIUMF particle accelerator in British Columbia and abroad to perfect a design created by DarkSide, an international physics network based in Italy.

The design for the simple hospital ventilator, called the Mechanical Ventilator Milano, will be manufactured by Vexos. According to the Queen’s Gazette, the MVM is “an innovative, simple but powerful ventilator designed to address the specific needs of patients severely affected by COVID-19. Through collaboration between Italian, American, and Canadian physicists, engineers, and companies, the device was conceived, developed, and secured FDA authorization in the U.S. inside of six weeks. Health Canada review for the Canadian units will occur soon and delivery of the units is expected to commence in July 2020.”

Non-medical masks

Several municipalities around the world have asked or require residents to wear non-medical masks or face coverings when outside of the home. While Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, initially hesitated to require the face coverings, the federal public health authority issued a formal recommendation on May 20 in support of masks when physical distancing isn’t possible. An international research team is now saying that a hundred years’ worth of data supports that call.

Catherine Clase, associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, is part of a team that examined a century of evidence on cloth masks and found they can reduce contamination of air and surfaces. She noted that masks made out of several layers of cotton cloth will be most effective.

“Direct evidence about whether wearing a mask of any sort outside a health-care setting reduces actual transmission of COVID-19 is lacking. This is why public-health decisions about public mask wearing have been difficult to make, and why they differ around the world,” Dr. Clase said in an interview with McMaster. “Our review suggests that cloth can block particles, even aerosol-sized particles, and this supports Canadian public health policy on the issue.”

Anne Bissonnette, a textiles professor at the University of Alberta had noticed that lack of scientific data to support the use of cloth masks, too. To help make sense of the competing messages about face coverings, she started a website where she’s compiling the latest research on cloth face masks She has also posted a step-by-step guide for sewing an “eyewear friendly” mask at home with fabric recommendations.

At Concordia University, wearing a cloth face mask will soon become a matter of school pride – the university’s athletics department is polling Twitter on which Stingers-branded mask the public would like to see in the world.

Something nice

The University of Winnipeg has put the spotlight on faculty members’ work-from-home colleagues of the four-legged variety. The bimonthly Teacher’s Pet series introduces professors’ beloved cats and dogs. We’re Team Julie and Lil Bean.

May 27, 2020

Quebec wants at least 30 percent of students back on campus this fall

Quebec’s provincial government has requested postsecondary schools to prepare scenarios that would see at least 30 percent of students return to campus. Le Devoir and La Presse are reporting that the province’s cegeps and universities have been asked to plan for three possible scenarios for the start of the fall term: classes begin with a hybrid model allowing for 50 percent of the student body on campus at one time; a hybrid model with 30-35 percent of students on campus at once; and a full return to pre-pandemic class sizes and formats. Institutions have also been asked to consider specific student populations in these scenarios, including students with disabilities, students in their first year and in their final year of study, co-op and work-placement students, and those with limited technological and financial resources. In each case, faculty and staff would have access to campus. The scenarios will be evaluated by public health.

The reports indicate that the request for scenarios comes after the province’s postsecondary institutions expressed concern that a fall term of remote learning would lead to a drop in enrolments. However, several institutions including Université de Montréal, McGill University, Concordia University and Laval University have already announced that courses will primarily take place online. Instructors, for their part, took to Twitter to discuss their concerns about a return to campus.

Manitoba offers financial support to higher-ed institutions weeks after announcing funding cuts

Manitoba announced this week the creation of a one-time “transitional support fund” for postsecondary institutions. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler said the fund was created to support schools as they “plan for the pandemic’s impact on operations; it will help improve online learning, address enrolment changes related to international students and ‘align programming to labour market demands.’”

This news comes after the province asked publicly funded postsecondary institutions to prepare scenarios for budget cuts of anywhere from three to 10 percent in April. Earlier this month, the University of Winnipeg reported that its 2020-21 operating budget would be cut by the province by just under four percent, or $2.3 million, and that it expected a total shortfall of $6.3 million due to COVID-19. The University of Manitoba was said to be facing a cut of five percent, or $17.3 million. Both universities were preparing for layoffs, hiring freezes, voluntary work reductions and programming changes, among other measures.

Winnipeg study finds COVID-19 patients most infectious within eight days of first symptoms

Despite the back-and-forth on postsecondary funding in Manitoba, researchers in that province are producing results that could be of great use in the fight against COVID-19. A study conducted by the National Microbiology Laboratory, Cadham Provincial Laboratory and the University of Manitoba suggests people who are COVID-positive are most infectious during the first eight days of their symptoms.

The team analyzed samples from 90 Manitobans who tested positive for COVID-19 from March 12 to the first week of April. The researchers found no viral growth in samples taken from patients more than eight days after they became symptomatic. Their findings support previous results shared by researchers based in Germany and China.

As COVID-19 cases decline, study participants harder to come by

Meanwhile, another COVID-related study taking place in Canada has hit an unexpected bump in the road. An iPolitics story about CONCOR (Convalescent Plasma for COVID-19 Research), a cross-Canada trial attempting to treat COVID-19 patients with antibodies from people who have recovered from the disease, reports that the project is struggling to find infected patients to treat. Canadian Blood Services is handing sample collection for the study and suggested that it could be delayed due to a shortage of participants.

“We want to do a study that has a total of 1,200 patients in it. We know that’s going to take a while, particularly because, you know – it’s a good problem to have – but the study will take us longer to do than we thought, now that (the spread of the coronavirus) is slowing down,” said Dana Devine, chief scientist at Canadian Blood Services.

An international list of ongoing pandemic research competitions

From March, when COVID-19 was first identified as a global pandemic, until May 22, at least 139 funding competitions related to COVID-19 have closed around the world, including 10 competitions based out of Canada. Science|Business has been maintaining a database of these opportunities with more than 270 funding calls listed from 44 countries. This week it reported that many of them – approximately 49 percent – are still accepting applications.

On top of that initial burst of funding calls, an additional 84 funding opportunities with fixed deadlines remain open for researchers to apply for. Another 49 funding calls have ‘rolling’ deadlines – meaning they stay open until the money runs out or a final date is reached.

Among these newer calls, for example, the European Commission announced a €122 million COVID-19 research funding round under Horizon 2020, while the Eureka international R&D network launched a call for investigations into the prevention of future pandemics.”

CAUT surveys postsecondary staff on pandemic impact

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has launched another survey to gauge the impact of the pandemic on the higher-ed community. The group’s latest questionnaire aims for a snapshot of “the working lives of staff at universities and colleges across the country.” Employees of Canadian universities, colleges and polytechnics have until June 8 to participate. CAUT produced an earlier survey on how the pandemic has affected postsecondary students.

Something nice

Students at the University of Regina are helping locals to get growing. The student group YOU should GARDEN has been preparing seedlings and “gardens in a bag” to Regina residents who couldn’t otherwise afford to start a home garden. The food security group has already delivered more than 100 canvas garden bags with plants around the city and prepared free, how-to workshops online.

May 26, 2020

Satisfaction guaranteed at Ontario Tech U – or your money back!

In an effort to boost enrolment numbers for the fall term, Ontario Tech University made it clear that it will offer a full refund on tuition to any student who is not satisfied with the quality of their education and withdraws by October 9.

The university said it would aim for a blended-learning approach to the fall term, with the bulk of it taking place online.

Canadian COVID-19 vaccine candidate a step closer to human testing

A vaccine candidate for COVID-19 developed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) has cleared the animal-testing hurdle and is one step closer to human trials.

The university announced yesterday that the candidate was shown to be “highly effective in ferrets, one of the commonly used animal models for COVID-19.” The ferrets were given two immunizations before exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The immunizations “induced a strong immune response, generated neutralizing antibodies, and decreased viral infection in the upper respiratory tract to almost undetectable levels.” Over the next few months, the centre will prepare for human trials.

The VIDO-InterVac vaccine is one of a handful of promising vaccine candidates being developed in Canada, the Globe and Mail reports.

CFI, Future Skills Centre now accepting proposals

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has launched an “Exceptional Opportunities Fund” competition for research related to COVID-19 from any discipline. CFI will fund up to $25 million for “urgent needs for equipment for ongoing research related to COVID-19.”

Between June 1 and June 15, institutions can submit application for funding ranging from $200,000 to $1.5 million. CFI will exceptionally cover 100 percent of all costs for projects funded through this competition (the foundation generally requires applicants to show some level of partnership funding). Proposals will be assessed based on research or technology development, the researchers involved (must be recognized leaders in COVID-19 research), infrastructure, the sustainability of the projects and the benefits to Canadians. Most importantly, “the infrastructure component must be an indispensable element of a current research project related to COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, the Future Skills Centre, based out of Ryerson University, has launched a $15-million call for proposals for “labour market innovations” that will “help build resiliency in the face of social and economic shock.” Proposals may involve research, network development or pilot projects that support in-need sectors, regions and populations respond to an evolving job market and the need for continued skills development. Applications will be accepted on an ongoing basis crom May 26 to September 1, 2020, with funding decisions announced within a month after an application is received.

Memorial, U of Lethbridge offer incoming first-years early credit options

Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador is joining some New Brunswick universities in offering incoming first-year students the chance to complete some courses before fall term even starts. The university has created a special spring semester for high school students heading to any postsecondary institution this September. The 10-week term runs June 4 to August 12 and will offer 14 for-credit courses in business administration, humanities, social sciences, science, fine arts, human kinetics and recreation, music, social work, and environmental studies. Tuition fees for a single course range from about $380 for students in Newfoundland and Labrador to more than $1,200 for international students.

“This spring is an ideal time for new, first-year students to take a credit course and to get a head start on their university studies,” said Memorial president Vianne Timmons in a video message announcing the new offerings. “To complement these credit courses, we will also roll out a suite of non-credit courses that will help new incoming students transition to university life and get set for success – expect more to come on that very soon.”

The university also noted that this spring semester offers prospective students the chance to “get an idea of what to expect from the remote teaching and learning experience that will be offered at Memorial during fall semester.”

On April 28, we reported that the Government of New Brunswick opened intersession courses at public universities to graduating high school students. Between the University of New Brunswick, St. Thomas University, Université de Moncton and Mount Allison University, incoming students have access to more than 60 courses.

In a similar vein, the University of Lethbridge has transitioned its Early Start Experience, a sort of bridging course that first-year students can take for course credit, to an online format. Administered by the university’s school of liberal education, the two-week course offers students the chance to “develop the skills and resources needed to succeed at university and learn how to build social networks with a diverse group of fellow students. They learn how to do research, write for university-level courses, study effectively and access all the resources available to them. Especially valuable right now, new students will also learn how to manage and do well in online courses.”

Quebec opens additional med school spots

Quebec’s government announced last week that it would increase the number of spots in medical schools in response to a critical shortage of physicians in that province – a gap that has been exacerbated by the current health crisis. The province will allow for an additional 139 students to enroll in the province’s medical programs over the next three years. The gradual roll-out of this new policy means that by year three, the total number of incoming medical students will sit at 969. For the upcoming academic year, the province has allowed for 62 students from outside of the province to register for medical programs in Quebec.

Something nice

With June a few days away and nicer weather settling in across most of Canada, it might get difficult to stay motivated while working from home. McGill University recently offered a webinar on the topic with alumna Nasreen Khatri, a renowned clinical psychologist, who had the following advice:

  • Maintain structure and routine
  • Set small, daily goals
  • Establish a buddy system
  • Get enough sleep
  • Take care of your health
  • Practice gratitude

Read a summary of Dr. Khatri’s tips at McGill News.

May 25, 2020

StatCan releases data on postsecondary student employment

Statistics Canada has released employment-related results from the crowdsourced data-collection questionnaire it ran for postsecondary students from April 19 to May 1. The agency found that out of 100,000 postsecondary students who responded to the questionnaire, about one-third reported having a work placement cancelled or delayed due to COVID-19, with students in services/trades and health care programs faring worse than others. A very high number of students (86 percent) whose placements had been disrupted said they were “very or extremely concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their personal finances,” while 72 percent of students who did not have a disrupted work placement said the same.

Among the prospective graduates who had a placement cancelled or delayed, 52 percent said they were “very or extremely concerned that their credential would be considered less valuable than the credentials of graduates unaffected by COVID-19.”

Cybersecurity experts issue joint statement on contact tracing apps

At his daily briefing on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated that the federal government would soon endorse the use of an app for contact-tracing COVID-19 cases. He said that lifting travel restrictions and reopening business and workplaces across the country will not only require the government to boost capacity for virus testing, it will also need a robust system for identifying outbreak hotspots and for tracking people who may have been in contact with an infected individual. A soon-to-be-released app can help with this task, he said.

Contact tracing apps use a mobile device’s Bluetooth capability to emit a personalized, anonymous signal and to register the signals of other users in the vicinity. The app compares those signals against a database of registered users and sends you a notification if any of those signals have been associated with a case of COVID-19.

Following the prime minister’s briefing, 71 cybersecurity researchers from 17 Canadian universities released a joint statement asking that governments subject any contact tracing app to a thorough and public “technical review by independent security and privacy experts.” Reviews “help identify potential flaws and provide indispensable input to a public debate about the balance between health safety, privacy and security. Reviews can enhance trust in the deployment of apps and help foster wider adoption. Reviews should be public because public technical specifications will enhance trust and acceptance.”

The statement includes 10 principles the government and tech companies should follow for developing a releasing contact tracing apps. Among the list’s suggestions, it includes independent reviews, simple design and minimal functionality, and strict rules for data collection and distribution.

The statement is an initiative of the National Cybersecurity Consortium, a collective of cybersecurity scholars co-led by the University of New Brunswick, the University of Calgary, Concordia University, the University of Waterloo and Ryerson University.

IRCC will accept some incomplete applications for study permit, post-grad work permit

According to CIC News, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada will accept study permit applications that are missing information due to pandemic-related service disruptions. Specifically, they will not refuse applications missing biometric data, medical exams and/or original travel documents. The applications will remain open until supporting documents can be obtained. Similar allowances are being made for applicants to the Post-Graduation Work Permit who are unable to get a letter of completion or final transcript from their school.

UBC researchers prototype biodegradable medical mask

Researchers with the University of British Columbia’s BioProducts Institute designed an N95 mask made entirely in Canada and from fully compostable and biodegradable materials. The frame is made of wood fibres from B.C. softwoods such as pine, spruce and cedar. The researchers have prototyped a version of the mask fitted with a commercial N95 filter and another with a UBC-designed filter made from wood-based products. The researchers plan to seek Health Canada certification after a testing period.

“With millions of disposable masks and gloves already polluting city sidewalks and potentially entering our rivers and oceans, we urgently need a biodegradable option to avoid making a massive impact on our environment,” says Johan Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science at UBC who co-designed the mask.

Free CAHSPR conference looks at post-COVID health care

What does the future have in store for Canada’s health system post-COVID? That will be the starting point for discussions at this year’s annual conference for the Canadian Association for Health Services and Policy Research. Starting on Wednesday, May 27, the two-day conference will take place online and includes speakers such as Vivek Goel, vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto, and André Picard, health reporter for the Globe and Mail. Registration for the conference is free.

Something nice

University of Manitoba medical students have been volunteering as family liaisons in intensive-care units at hospitals across Winnipeg. In these roles, students use donated iPads to organize and facilitate videoconferencing between ICU patients and their loved ones around the world while visitor restrictions are in place due to COVID-19. Not only do the video calls improve patient mental health, they also keep families in touch with medical teams seeking input on treatment decisions while a patient is incapacitated. “As a future physician, I’ve learned the importance of having that contact with patients and their families and developing those relationships,” says one student volunteer.

May 22, 2020

ON reveals recipients of rapid research funding

The Government of Ontario has announced the recipients of the province’s rapid research funding for projects related to COVID-19. The fund stands at $20 million and, so far, will support 15 projects that will investigate issues such as high-speed COVID-19 testing, vaccine development, the state of food retail businesses, the impact on homeless and low-income populations in Ottawa, and treating COVID-19 using the antibodies of patients who have recovered from the disease. The principal investigators on these projects are based out of McMaster University, the University of Toronto, the University of Guelph, Western University, the University of Ottawa, Sick Kids Hospital, the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Lawson Health Research Institute, and St Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. Details on each project are available on the Government of Ontario’s website. The province will announce additional funding recipients in the coming weeks.

ON premier commends universities, minister says hybrid learning “best-case scenario”

Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano revealed the list of rapid research funding winners at the province’s daily COVID-19 briefing yesterday. After the announcement, the minister was asked by a reporter if he would consider issuing a directive to postsecondary institutions in the province to proceed exclusively with online learning options this fall. Mr. Romano responded: “We’re looking at a number of different options.”

The minister added that he’s been having “very frequent conversations” with institution presidents and the approach they’re collectively taking is to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” The best-case scenario, he said, would be a hybrid model involving both virtual and in-person instruction. Mr. Romano said that the emphasis in these conversations has been to ensure “that programs that can be delivered online are delivered virtually.”

The minister also acknowledged that some undergraduate, technical and professional programs as well as certain graduate programs require a significant amount of hands-on or lab-based learning. In these exceptional cases, the ministry is working with institutions on a model for in-person instruction. He said that this proposal will be brought to the province’s chief medical officer for feedback.

Mr. Ford ended the press briefing by commending Mr. Romano for his work with the postsecondary sector during the crisis. The premier noted that Mr. Romano had reported that in a matter of weeks, institutions in the province had moved approximately 100,000 courses online – a transition that would normally take 10 years, he said. Mr. Ford also offered kudos to the province’s postsecondary institutions. “I brag about you everywhere I go. … I have all the faith in all the colleges and universities that you’ll be able to help us come up with a vaccine.”

“A shout out to all the students out there,” Mr. Ford added. “You guys are champions.”

QC premier aims to have students in the classroom this fall

Meanwhile, the Quebec government has a very different vision of a best-case scenario for fall term at institutions in that province. The Montreal Gazette reports that the province anticipates students “of all education levels” will be back in the classroom in September. The scenario comes from a working document obtained by the newspaper.

This stance is supported by comments made by Premier François Legault during his daily COVID-19 press briefings on Thursday. “Given where we are at in the pandemic, if we respect the rules, I think there’s a good chance all students will be able to physically be present in school, CEGEP and university when back to school happens in September. It’s what we should aim for,” he said.

40 jobs lost at MRU

Mount Royal University has cut 40 positions due to budget compressions made worse by the pandemic. CBC reports that university president Tim Rahilly alerted staff to the job losses in an email on Thursday. “Each of these employees contributed in many ways to the success of students, and it is difficult to see them go. The process was handled as compassionately as possible, given that people are working remotely,” he told staff. He added that the university has to find ways to lower costs over the next three years.

MRU joins several other public universities in Alberta that have announced job reductions during the pandemic. As previously reported, the University of Lethbridge cut more than 29 jobs. The University of Alberta negotiated a “letter of understanding” with the university’s Non-Academic Staff Association and issued temporary layoffs of support staff for up to 120 days. U of A president David Turpin said in a blog post that he anticipated a loss of about 1,000 jobs at the institution in total.

The province has been pushing for cuts in “non-essential” operating and staff costs at about 100 government departments, postsecondary institutions and Crown corporations. The province also decided to go ahead a performance-based funding model for universities, which it is slated to introduce this month.

Something nice

The University of Regina choir put on its first virtual performance this week. They performed Pierre Passereau’s “Il est bel et bon,” which the university’s concert choir and chamber singers had been practicing for an end-of-semester concert.

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May 21, 2020

King’s University College to open residences for Sept.

Not only is King’s University College at Western University preparing for a fall term of blended learning, it’s getting ready to welcome students into residence come September. In order to meet physical distancing requirements, the university is adapting its residences halls into single-occupancy accommodations only, with each resident assigned a bathroom. The institution has also extended the deadline for room deposit refunds to August 31.

Live Q&A with university presidents on CdnPSE after COVID-19

Four university presidents will participate in a virtual forum today about the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian higher education. Hosted by Ryerson University’s Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, the Q&A will include Ryerson’s Mohamed Lachemi, the University of Winnipeg’s Annette Trimbee, David Sylvester from the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, and Jean-Paul Boudreau of Mount Allison University. The conversation starts at 4:15 EST. Register by emailing [email protected].

Carleton releases findings on perceptions of post-lockdown policy and misinformation

Media researchers at Carleton University have released new data that provides insight into public perceptions of different aspects of the pandemic. A survey of 2,000 Canadians conducted by the school of journalism and communication and funded by the faculty of public affairs found that nearly half of Canadians (46 percent) believed at least one of four widespread conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

The most popular among respondents was the myth that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was engineered in a Chinese lab and released into the general population (believed by 26 percent of participants). About 23 percent believe the unproven claim popularized by Donald Trump that hydroxychloroquine and other drugs are effective against COVID-19; 11 percent incorrectly believe that COVID-19 is a cover-up for illnesses caused by 5G networks; and 17 percent believe the myth that regularly rinsing your nose with a saline solution can help protect individuals from coronavirus infection. More than half (57 percent) also believe they can “easily distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation from factual information about COVID-19.” The results also drilled into demographic trends, including age and geographic locations.

“I was floored by the overconfidence Canadians have in their own ability to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation,” said Sarah Everts, CTV Chair in Digital Science Journalism at Carleton, and a co-researcher on the study. “Everyone has fallen prey at some point to misinformation on social media. Anyone who thinks that it’s easy to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation is at high risk of being fooled.”

In that same survey, the researchers measured public perceptions of the post-lockdown measures being introduced by governments across the country. The vast majority of respondents (79 percent) agreed with the statement: “It is more important to minimize avoidable illness and death than to reopen the economy too quickly,” while 21 percent expressed a preference for “getting the economy going again, even if that leads to more illness and death.”

“Our findings suggest that Canadians have no appetite for moving quickly and want their leaders in government, the health sector and business to move with an abundance of caution,” says co-investigator Josh Greenberg.

Have your say on post-pandemic policy

Further west, another research team is also seeking public perceptions of pandemic decision-making, but these scholars are looking for public solutions, too. Researchers from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Guelph are recruiting residents of British Columbia to contribute their thoughts on policy decisions as governments begin to ease pandemic-related restrictions. The team is hosting a series of 90-minute online discussions to gauge what British Columbians “value, what you want and what you need, so that decision-makers can consider your recommendations as we take the next steps in our pandemic response.” The first session will address the pros and cons of contact-tracing apps. Once the sessions are over, the researchers will compile the public input received into a report for government officials.

Prez rez goes on the market

The University of Regina is selling the president’s residence. The CBC reports that a house owned by the university and reserved for the university president has been put on the market. It’s typically offered as a perk to the university president, with the institution footing the $100,000-bill for maintenance on the five-bedroom, five-bathroom house located near campus. The university decided to sell the house, valued at $875,100, now as it faces revenue losses due to the current health crisis. The university says that up to $100,000 from the sale of the house will go to an emergency fund for students.

UTSC repurposes hall for crisis food distribution

Campus is closed at the University of Toronto Scarborough, but its buildings are being put to good use by the city. U of T News reports that last weekend, UTSC’s Highland Hall officially became a food packaging centre serving locals in need. CARES (Collective Action and Response for Everyone in Scarborough) sees UTSC and the City of Toronto partnering with disaster-relief organization GlobalMedic to collect, package and distribute items to food banks around Scarborough and the Durham region. Volunteers at the centre repackage food staples delivered in bulk by GlobalMedic into 500-gram bags of rice, lentils, barley, chickpeas, green peas and kidney beans. This week, the centre also started offering food hampers for contactless pick-up in a campus parking lot.

UTSC chief administrative officer Andrew Arifuzzaman co-organized the initiative with a local city councillor, staff from nearby Humber College and GlobalMedic founder Rahul Singh. The campus outlet is now one of three major GlobalMedic distribution centres in the GTA, along with Humber and the City of Brampton.

Toronto Mayor John Tory tours Highland Hall last weekend. Photo by Tara Welch.

Something nice

In response to the closure of galleries, museums and other art spaces, the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery at the University of British Columbia has launched Everything This Changes. The site is a platform for “works of art, research projects, podcasts, interviews, conversations and events.” At the heart of this project are questions like, “In what ways have artists and thinkers prepared us for thinking about the present crisis?” and “How does the present crisis change the way we see and read?”

May 20, 2020

SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR join CAUT for town hall on research funding

Representatives from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Canadian Institutes of Health Research will be joining the Canadian Association of University Teachers for a virtual town hall about the impact of COVID-19 on the research landscape in Canada. The talk takes place on Thursday morning at 11:30 EST and aims to provide an overview of federal and tri-agency funding measures that address the pandemic. Registration for the Zoom chat is required.

Layoffs in Lethbridge

In a press release circulated by email last week, the University of Lethbridge announced that it would temporarily lay off 145 “continuing support” staff members due to pandemic-related campus closures. The statement explains that the affected staff members “help deliver many of the important programs and services upon which the university’s students and community members rely” and that “support staff from almost all departments are affected by this decision.” While most of these employees have seen their hours reduced from full-time status, another 66 have been laid off.

U of Lethbridge president Mike Mahon says the pandemic has “drastically reduced” the university’s in-person activities. “During this time especially, the university must utilize its resources responsibly. Coupled with the significant budget cuts we are experiencing, as well as signaled future budget cuts, these temporary layoffs are regrettably necessary.”

These new layoffs follow a reduction of hours and job losses in March for 183 casual, research and student employees.

COVID-19 cases on the rise among Ontario health-care workers, lab techs

Ontario is seeing a significant increase in COVID-19 cases among health-care professionals, and front-line workers and lab technicians. An article published by the CBC on May 15 reported that 17 percent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in the province had been identified in health-care workers – some 3,607 cases in total. In early April, the number of infected health-care workers accounted for about 10 percent of all cases in Ontario. According to public health data provided to the CBC by the province, nurses have been worst hit (714 cases). Physicians were a distant second with 76 cases, followed by first responders (70 cases) and lab technicians (41 cases). About 2,700 cases were reported among a variety of roles, such as hospital cleaning staff, respiratory therapists and personal support workers.

Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science, noted that protective equipment alone won’t keep front-line staff safe – even highly-trained professionals make mistakes while removing PPE. “You can’t see a virus; it’s not like blood,” she told the CBC.

Varsity sports in limbo for most provinces

If universities opt to maintain remote course delivery and keep campuses closed in the fall term, what does that mean for varsity athletics and more than 900 coaches employed by U Sports? Some provinces are preserving some form of varsity leagues, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach. In a recent article, the Canadian Press looks at what university sports could look like next term under the shadow of the pandemic.

In the meantime, U Sports has been rebroadcasting major matches from seasons past under the banner U Sports “Live.” This week features the 2011 women’s hockey championship between McGill University and St. Francis Xavier University. ﷟HYPERLINK “”

NL grant encourages students to work with isolated seniors

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has launched a grant program to employ students with organizations that serve seniors and other vulnerable populations that have been isolated during the pandemic. A total of $300,000 has been set aside for grants of $3,500 to cover eight weeks of employment at $12 an hour in such fields as food delivery and technology support. The grant is open to employers in the private sector, not-for-profit sector and municipalities.

The complexities behind tuition cuts and pass/fail grades

Yesterday we told you about some efforts by students to persuade universities to issue refunds on the previous winter term and to reduce fees for the upcoming fall term. Yahoo Canada, with some input from Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, has published an explainer on why tuition reductions and refunds aren’t as straightforward as they may seem. In short, universities probably couldn’t afford to issue widespread refunds even if they wanted to.

Another contentious point for students since campus lockdowns has been the decision by many universities to issue (often by request) pass/fail grades for the 2020 winter term. Kwame Anthony Appiah tackles the issue in his latest “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times.

A student from an American liberal arts college that elected for an opt-in pass/fail grading system for the past term wrote in saying they believe that students should act in solidarity and opt for the credit/no credit option across the board. Those who opt for the standard grading system and GPA are “morally wrong,” the student argues. Dr. Appiah, a philosophy professor at New York University, responds to the letter-writer suggesting that with so many institutions offering the pass/fail option, graduate schools and professional post-graduate programs will surely have to take these grades into consideration when making admissions decisions. Moreover, challenging the pass/fail system really doesn’t get to the heart of inequity in higher education and maybe the student’s efforts are misplaced, he adds. “I see why you think that there’s an unfairness in the way that your college has chosen to respond. But given that the policy doesn’t significantly increase the unfairness in the system taken as a whole, I wonder if your proposed solidarity movement is aimed at the right target.”

Dr. Appiah’s reply trades on some tired generalizations about privileged and less-privileged students, but the short column offers a thoughtful response all the same.

Something nice

Looking for a mask to wear during essential activities, like grocery shopping or picking up a prescription? Making your own cotton, tie-up mask is easier than you think – all you really need is a tea towel, bed sheet, sewing machine a few sewing odds and ends. Danielle Martin, a faculty member with Ryerson University’s school of fashion, demonstrates the process in a video posted by the university.

Dr. Martin and her colleagues in the faculty of communication and design came up with the pattern for these masks while prototyping options for Toronto health-care providers. (The pattern and instructions are also available in French on Dr. Martin’s personal website.) The fashion professor leveraged some contacts at a bridalwear company and clothing retailers, including Simon’s, to produce more than 4,000 of these masks for St. Michael’s Hospital and Michael Garron Hospital.

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May 19, 2020

Students attempt to sue 15 universities in Quebec

CTV News is reporting that a group of students from 15 Quebec universities have applied to file a class-action lawsuit against the schools for a partial refund on the past term’s tuition fees. The students argue that when classes moved online or were cancelled due to the pandemic, they lost access to many services and spaces that their fees help to pay for. “The class action is meant to compensate students for the services they didn’t get,” says attorney Elodie Drolet-French.

The universities named in the dispute are HEC Montréal, l’École nationale d’administration publique (ENAP), l’École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS), Polytechnique Montréal, Bishop’s University, Concordia University, Laval University, l’Université de Montréal, l’Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, l’Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, l’Université du Québec à Montréal, l’Université du Québec en Outaouais, l’Université du Québec à Rimouski and l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

For weeks, students in various provinces have been seeking fee refunds to compensate for a disruption in campus services. Several institutions issued partial refunds for residence and dining services early on. And while this appears to be the first legal action attempted by students in light of pandemic-related campus closures in this country, student groups in the United States have brought more than 75 class action lawsuits against their institutions.

CAUT offers guidelines for reopening campus

The Canadian Association of University Teachers released a set of guidelines to aid in reopening Canadian university campuses for the upcoming academic year. The organization asks that institutions’ joint health and safety committees and academic staff associations be included in the decision-making processes; that these committees and associations come up with adequate considerations around physical distancing measures on campus, PPE for staff and students, and procedures to mitigate risk in the event of an infection on campus; that institutions offer accommodations to academic staff who are at high-risk for infection or whose caregiving responsibilities require them to stay home; that changes to instructional modes and methods be negotiated with teaching staff associations; and that teaching staff be adequately compensated for additional preparations or instruction time needed during remote teaching, among other considerations.

Dal to jointly host first Canadian clinical trial for COVID vaccine

We first told you about the partnerships between Chinese vaccine-maker CanSino, the National Research Council of Canada and Dalhousie University’s Canadian Center for Vaccinology on May 12. Since then, Health Canada has approved clinical trials for a potential COVID-19 vaccine to take place soon at the centre. It will be the first clinical trial for a potential COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, and will begin once the trials receive ethics board approval, reports Dal News. Testing will begin on younger, healthier subjects before moving on to more at-risk populations.

An estimated 28M surgeries impacted by COVID-19

A team of international researchers, including faculty members at Western University, estimates that more than 28 million elective procedures, approximately 72 percent of planned surgeries worldwide, will be cancelled or postponed this year due to the pandemic. They came to this prediction based on a model that used information from surgeons at 359 hospitals in 71 countries. If surgery cancellations and postponements continue for 12-week period in Canada, it will mean 394,576 cancelled surgeries, including 27,390 cancer procedures. The researchers figure it will take 11 months to clear the backlog of procedures in Canada. A summary of the results, originally published in the British Journal of Surgery, is available on the Western News website.

The Lancet fact-checks Trump

The Lancet took the unusual move to fact-check U.S. President Donald Trump via Twitter today. The day before, the president addressed a letter to the World Health Organization general-director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that criticizes the agency’s response to COVID-19. It specifically criticizes the WHO for “ignoring credible reports” about the virus in Wuhan, China, as early as December 2019, including reports published in The Lancet. The problem is, no such research was published in the respected medical journal last year, and the publication was quick to point that out to the president. The journal published an official rebuttal on Twitter this morning, which bluntly says, “This statement is factually incorrect.”

Something nice

A recession is a great time to go back to school. Governments must help make that possible,” says editorial board at the Globe and Mail.

May 15, 2020

Feds promise $450M to avoid lab layoffs

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this morning that the federal government will provide universities and research institutions with $450 million in order to keep researchers on staff. Part of the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, this new money will provide research institutions with temporary wage relief of up to 75 percent (or, up to $847 per week) for each staff member who’s had their industry or philanthropic funding reallocated or stall due to the pandemic.

The government will also cover up to 75 percent of “total eligible costs” related to maintain essential research-related activities, like safe handling and storage of dangerous materials, during campus and lab closures. It will also contribute to restarting “full research operations once physical distancing measures are lifted.”

The government says this measure should help some 15,000 academic researchers and lab workers who’ve seen their regular research activities ground to a halt.

University Affairs will report on this funding program as details come out in the coming days.

IRCC relaxes work permit rules for international students

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has temporarily eased some of the rules for international students seeking post-graduate work permits. According to IRCC, international students will be eligible for a post-graduation work permit even if their courses remain online this fall due to COVID-19. Students can begin courses and complete up to 50 percent of their program outside of Canada if they are unable to travel due to restrictions. Normally, IRCC deducts time spent studying outside of Canada from the work permit period, but that won’t be the case for coursework completed abroad up to December 31, 2020.

The agency estimates that international students contributed $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and support nearly 170,000 jobs in 2018. Nearly 54,000 people who studied at Canadian institutions as international students became permanent residents in 2018.

COVID-19 Immunity Task Force partners with CIHR to issue funding

As part of its $1.1-billion research strategy to combat COVID-19, the federal government launched the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force to oversee research on the scope of the infection and immunity in Canada. The task force, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, has now teamed up with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to issue additional grants under the COVID-19 May 2020 Rapid Research competition. That competition closed earlier this week and received more than 1,500 applications for funding.

In a statement on its website, CIHR explains how the partnership will work:

“To maximize efficiency and speed the response to COVID-19 in Canada, all grants currently submitted in the May 2020 Rapid Research competition will be adjudicated per usual through CIHR to ensure consistency and excellence in peer review. For those grants that are determined by peer review to be fundable – and that fall partly or fully within the early priorities of the Immunity Task Force – funding may be shared between CIHR and the Task Force or be assumed fully by the Task Force, thus mitigating the need for further review.”

The task force will also put out a separate call for project submissions in the coming weeks.

More plans for fall 2020

This week, we reported on some of the fall plans that Canadian universities have released so far. In the days since we published that story, many more universities have announced their intentions for the coming school year.

  • All large classes at the University of Waterloo will take place online for the entire fall term, though tutorials and labs may take place in person.
  • The term at Queen’s University will largely take place online for most students and faculty members, with a limited number of undergraduate and graduate programs offered in person.
  • Mount Saint Vincent University “will shift to online course delivery for the fall 2020 semester.”
  • Concordia University confirmed “the fall 2020 term will be delivered almost entirely online, accessible anytime, from anywhere in the world. The vast majority of our faculty and staff will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.”
  • While noting that “a quality learning environment is a safe learning environment,” the University of Alberta said the majority of classes will run remotely, although “where possible, we are committed to providing small group in-person learning and experiential learning such as labs and clinical instruction, especially in those programs where in-person instruction is essential.”
  • The University of Calgary will also run most of its courses remotely, but it was a bit more specific in its plans for small-group instruction on campus: “To allow the maintenance of appropriate physical distancing, we are aiming to have approximately 30 percent of our students on each of our campuses at any one time. Priority will be given to small classes and experiential learning opportunities such as labs, tutorials, and seminars.”

Academica is now tracking fall announcements as they are released.

Inquiring minds want to know: Where’d you learn to make that quarantini?

From sourdough loaves and focaccia gardens, to whipped coffee and “quarantinis,” self-isolation has changed the food and drink (and food- and drink-related media) we’re consuming – and researchers at Saint Mary’s University and the University of Antwerp want to know how. To that end, a team including SMU psychology professor Maryanne Fisher is collecting data through a multi-national survey to gauge cooking, eating, shopping and food media habits during the pandemic. The survey, available in English, French and Dutch, is online now.

Something nice: Pixar vibes

Care to see a student teacher wail on a clarinet? Then we’ve got just the thing: a video of a group of students, faculty, and alumni from the University of Windsor recreating Randy Newman’s theme from the film Monsters, Inc. It’s a jaunty tune to kick off a long weekend in Canada.

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May 14, 2020

Ryerson’s Yellowhead Institute challenges ISC’s COVID case count

Research by the Yellowhead Institute suggests the number of COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities is three times what Indigenous Services Canada has reported. Researchers working with the think tank reviewed public data such as media reports, band council updates to members and obituaries, to establish a more accurate number. As of May 12, the team counted an estimated 465 cases in 42 communities and seven possible deaths, while ISC reported 184 confirmed cases and two deaths.

Part of the difference comes down to the fact that ISC is only reporting on-reserve cases from five provinces, the Yellowhead Institute explained in its post.

“There is no agency or organization in Canada reliably recording and releasing COVID-19 data that indicates whether or not a person is Indigenous. The public health agencies that report on the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths, recovery, and tests vary in their structure and relationship to local Indigenous people and their communities. And since very few First Nations actually have local control over the delivery of public health, the majority rely on provincial public health services, regardless of whether or not they live on-reserve. Many public services that Indigenous peoples access do not collect disaggregated data that includes racial or ethnic identity of clients, which makes it almost impossible for any racialized community to seek accountability for poorer outcomes or service based on racial discrimination.”

The think tank, based out of Ryerson University, says their results are supported by an admission by ISC that the federal department had insufficient information to adequately respond to the pandemic in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. In an interview with the CBC, report author Courtney Skye said there “are likely more cases” out there.

More on COVID-19 and Indigenous students, communities

On the same day that it released its report, the Yellowhead Institute also posted an episode of the Heartberry podcast, which it produces, by two postsecondary students who recount their experience of living on-reserve during the pandemic while finishing their courses online.

Meanwhile, Indigenous students at the University of Northern British Columbia and three B.C. colleges will receive additional supports thanks to a grant from the Mastercard Foundation. The four institutions are working together to expand student counselling support, create employment opportunities for students, and to develop a “last-mile connectivity technology project to ensure students are able to access online programming.” According to a press release from UNBC, “each institution will develop employment opportunities focused on investigating how to address the challenge of isolation, lack of [internet] connectivity, and the resultant barriers and challenges for students. The student employees will also explore best practices and learning models that work well in this context.”

For additional information on how the current crisis is impacting Indigenous peoples, check out the daily news round-up posted to the website for kitatipithitamak mithwayawin, an Indigenous-led planning and response project funded by CIHR’s COVID-19 rapid response program. The team leading the project will discuss their work during a webinar on May 26.

Reduced grants to MB universities and staff layoffs

The University of Winnipeg will see its 2020-21 operating budget cut by under four percent, or $2.3 million. The Winnipeg Free Press reports that the institution will ultimately face a total loss of $6.3 million due to COVID-19. The 2019-2020 budget stood at $144 million. U of Winnipeg president Annette Trimbee told the newspaper that the institution is looking into “non-salary” staffing cuts as well as an expansion of program offerings to mitigate the budget cut and the loss in revenue. This news comes weeks after the provincial government asked publicly funded postsecondary institutions to prepare scenarios for budget cuts of anywhere for three to 10 percent.

Yesterday, University of Manitoba president David Barnard released a statement on the province’s clawbacks to postsecondary operating grants. He notes that while the university is waiting on official word about a reduction in money provided by the province, the Minister of Economic Development and Training, Ralph Eichler had signaled a cut of five percent, or $17.3 million. The province has also indicated that up to four percent of that reduction will only apply for the upcoming budget year, however the operating grant to U of Manitoba will be reduced by at least one percent going forward.

“We have already had to make some difficult decisions as we respond to work disruptions, revenue losses, and increased costs resulting from the global pandemic. We must continue to work together now to address additional pressures put on our budget as a result of this significant cut,” he writes.

To address this budget shortage, the university is considering cutting back discretionary spending, a hiring freeze, voluntary reductions to work weeks and layoffs.

While the situation hasn’t become quite so dire in Ontario, institutions in that province are also dealing with revenue shortfalls. Queen’s University, for one, has recently placed three members of its residence staff on a temporary layoff.

PSEWeb conference moves online

Do you work in marketing and communications, web programming, web design or digital engagement at a postsecondary institution? Then you might be interested to know that the PSEWeb conference is a go for this year. The national conference, which was originally scheduled to take place in Montreal at McGill University, will now happen online from July 14 to 15. The organization will host 40-minute presentations by folks working in advancement, recruitment, social media strategy, user experience designers and more. The price for tickets has been reduced for this year.

Something nice: McMaster’s new virtual first-year transition program

McMaster University has developed a new transition program for incoming first-year students. Called Archway, the program will connect each first-year student to a designated staff support person (an “Archway coach”) and an upper-year student peer mentor to answer questions and offer personalized recommendations for resources. The program also aims to create a sense of community and connection by placing each student into a cohort of about 30 other new students with similar interests.

Welcome to the archway from McMaster University (OFFICIAL) on Vimeo.

May 13, 2020

Before we dive into today’s update, a quick note. We recently sent an email to University Affairs magazine subscribers alerting them to a disruption in our publishing schedule. Due to complications arising from the pandemic, we won’t be producing a May-June issue of the magazine (print and digital), which would’ve been arriving in mailboxes and inboxes this week. We plan to return to our regular schedule with the July-August issue – we’re already hard at work on fascinating stories about open science, Canada’s new university in the North, and, of course, COVID-19.

In the meantime, we’ll continue publishing timely and original news, opinion, career advice and job postings to our website every weekday, including our daily Media Scan and, for now, these COVID-19 updates. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to keep up with our latest content and subscribe to our magazine (it’s free!) to get the next issue delivered to your home or office. (And if you’re already a subscriber, thank you!) You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

And now, to the update!

CESB applications open Friday

The federal government will open applications to the Canada Emergency Student Benefit this Friday. The prime minister confirmed the start date today. The CESB bill passed in the House of Commons late last month. This week, the Canada Revenue Agency, which will administer payments, has been encouraging prospective applicants to prepare by registering with the department online.

CESB aims to replace students’ lost summer income at $1,250 a month from May to August. Those who are also providing care for someone, or who have a disability will receive $2,000 a month. Current students, students beginning their studies in September 2020, and those who graduated after December 2019 are eligible for the program. Read our previous coverage of the new CESB program here.

Goodbye Congress 2020, Hello Virtual Conference Week

Congress may be cancelled this year, but the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences won’t let that stop the meeting of minds. Instead, the federation will help organize what they’re calling “Virtual Conference Week” for four scholarly associations.

From June 1 to 5, the Canadian Society of Church History, the Environmental Studies Association of Canada, the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research and the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English will host a few online plenaries, keynotes and celebrations. Conference agendas and a list of public events are available now on the Virtual Conference Week website.

CSPC launches online interview series tomorrow with Quebec’s chief scientist

The Canadian Science Policy Centre has previously announced that it will move its annual conference online (the deadline for panel proposals has just been extended to June 12). It’s getting a head-start on the virtual event with a new online interview series. The series starts Thursday, with CSPC president Mehrdad Hariri speaking live over Zoom with Rémi Quirion, Quebec’s chief scientist, about government pandemic responses.

The interview starts at 9 a.m. Eastern. Registration required.

University cancels international travel for rest of 2020

The Univeristy of Ottawa has banned all university-related international travel through to the end of the year, effectively cancelling study-abroad and exchanges for the fall term. The Fulcrum, the university’s student publication, reported on the details of an email sent to students from the institution’s international office last week. Students set to take off to international study destinations this school year have instead been offered a variety of alternatives, including postponing travel until the winter term, taking online courses through their intended institution, or cancelling the study-abroad trip.

Something nice: Happy birthday edition

Staff at the Centre universitaire de santé McGill (McGill University Health Centre) in Montreal helped a patient recovering from COVID-19 celebrate her 92nd birthday. Bonne fête Mme Benoît!

May 12, 2020

StatCan, CAUT and CFS release new data on students’ pandemic experience

Statistics Canada has just published findings from its second questionnaire on how postsecondary students have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crowdsourced answers from more than 100,000 students suggest that most respondents (57 percent) experienced a significant disruption in their courses and academic work placements. More than one-quarter (26 percent) said that some of their courses were postponed or cancelled by their institutions, including activities that can’t be offered online, such as labs.

The results from students who were to graduate this year were particularly concerning. Some 17 percent of students in the final year of their programs said they wouldn’t be able to complete the degree, diploma or certificate as planned. And the majority of prospective graduating students (54 percent) also reported “that they were very or extremely concerned that their degree, diploma or certificate would not be considered equivalent to those whose studies were not affected by COVID-19.”

The students who responded saw a huge drop in employment opportunities. Among those who held a job at the beginning of March, 21 percent had lost it while 34 percent had been laid off two months later. Many had lost hours. As well, 31 percent who were counting on a job starting this spring or summer had lost that opportunity, while another 40 percent said their start date had been delayed. Understandably, many students reported concerns about future job prospects, too: 58 percent said they are “very or extremely concerned” about losing their job, and 67 percent are “very or extremely concerned about having no job prospects in the near future.” They are also concerned about paying for future school expenses and living costs.

The survey ran from April 19 to May 1, during which time the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Student Benefit. That announcement on April 22 did have an impact on student responses:

“Overall, following the announcement of the CESB, the proportion of returning students who reported that they were very or extremely concerned about their finances decreased across all categories. Despite this decline, a notable number still reported significant concerns. For example, prior to the announcement of the CESB, 73 percent of participants indicated that they were very or extremely concerned about using up their savings. This declined to 61 percent following the announcement.

Similarly, the proportion of participants with significant concerns about paying for tuition next term, increasing their student debt or paying for current expenses declined by 10 to 14 percentage points after the announcement of the CESB, with between 44 percent and 47 percent of students reporting they were very or extremely concerned about each of these issues.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students also released new data about students’ pandemic experience that tracks with the StatCan findings. The groups released summary results of a joint survey that found some 75 percent of respondents planning on returning to or starting postsecondary school in September are worried that remotely taught courses will offer a “poor learning experience.”

Among the survey’s findings: seven out of 10 said their summer jobs have been “negatively affected” by the pandemic; 30 percent of returning and new students would reconsider enrolling in postsecondary this fall; half say the crisis has made tuition and living costs harder to afford; more than two-thirds say their personal finances and those of their parents or family have been affected. The survey ran from April 23 to May 1, with a total of 1,100 high school and postsecondary students in Canada responding.

Reporting on the survey results, the Toronto Star spoke to a graduating high school student who is now thinking of taking a gap year instead of starting her first year at McMaster University this fall. According to the student’s mother, her daughter is less keen to head to university while physical distancing measures are still in effect since it would mean “missing out on the full spectrum of opportunities in the first year.”

NRC partners with Chinese company, VIDO-InterVac for vaccine

The National Research Council of Canada will collaborate with CanSino Biologics Inc., a Chinese vaccine producer, to expedite the development and production of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The company has already received approval to begin human trials of the candidate in China. While a few promising candidate vaccines are being tested around the world, according to the NRC the CanSino candidate is the first to enter into phase two of human clinical trials.

The collaboration builds on a previous relationship between the company and the federal agency that came out of efforts to develop an Ebola vaccine. In a media release, NRC explained that the partnership aims “to pave the way for future clinical trials in Canada, in collaboration with the Canadian Immunization Research Network at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology.” CanSino is in the process of filing an application with Health Canada to conduct a clinical trial of the vaccine candidate in Canada with the Canadian Center for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University.

A report by The Globe and Mail explains that the vaccine candidate was jointly developed by CanSino and the Chinese military’s medical research arm. NRC’s vice-president of life sciences is quoted in the Globe article: “We are going to get to evaluate it for safety and efficacy in Canada, as is being done already in China, and Canada will now be part of the front-runner story.”

Scott Halperin, the Dalhousie researcher partnering with CanSino for the possible trials, also explained to the Globe that intellectual property rights for any vaccine developed out of these tests would belong to CanSino. “Where they supply the vaccine would be their decision,” he said, but he also noted that the manufacturing agreement with NRC would essentially help to guarantee its supply in Canada.

The NRC announced that it has also partnered with the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre to develop and produce a candidate COVID-19 antigen. The USask facility has identified an antigen that will be part of a candidate vaccine against COVID-19. (VIDO-InterVac’s own vaccine research is said to be “promising.”) The collaboration involves the same proprietary biomaterial that NRC will contribute to the CanSino trials.

Something nice: wellness breaks

Working from home? You might feel more productive if you take a few pauses throughout the day – not just a lunch break, 15 minutes to absentmindedly scroll Instagram or a few minutes to help your kid connect to their class Zoom call, but a few mindful breaks in your workday. Lisa Belanger, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, suggests a coffee break that activates your senses: She takes up to 10 minutes to feel the warmth of the cup, smell the coffee, taste the blend, and gently notice than set aside any stray thoughts that might come up. “What it really is, is just being aware of where your attention is and being able to draw it to where you want it to be,” she told UCalgary News.

Find Dr. Belanger’s five tips for a wellness break on the U of Calgary site – she includes options for employees and supervisors.

May 11, 2020

McGill reopens for some research, but will maintain “remote” courses this fall

McGill University announced today that its fall term will start on time, however most courses will be delivered by “remote delivery platforms.” The university is looking into virtual options for extracurricular engagement, however it’s also preparing to offer some in-person activities, such as “small classroom-based seminars, conferences, tutorials, workshops, or reading groups as well as various campus life and engagement activities,” provided public health measures allow for them.

While several universities in Canada are issuing similar statements and plans for fall, it’s worth noting that McGill has committed its fall term to online or blended learning even as it becomes one of the first Canadian campuses – and certainly the largest to date – to reopen for select research activities this week. Sylvain Baillet, a professor of neurology and associate dean of research in McGill’s faculty of medicine, tweeted photos this morning of what that return to work looks like:

CIHR scraps clarification on application requirements for COVID-19 funding

On Friday, we told you about the clarification issued by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research about the application process for its “Operating Grant: COVID-19 May 2020 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity” that “fell flat” with prospective applicants. Hours later, the granting council published an update scrapping that clarification and an apology for making the process more difficult for some just a few days before the application deadline.

“[We] will fully revert to the community’s common understanding of the objectives that were outlined when the funding opportunity was launched. As such, all applications that meet any of the objectives will be considered by the peer reviewers, regardless of whether they meet a single objective or any combination of the five overarching objectives. As always, we will rely on the peer review process to determine which applications merit funding and, to that end, we will ensure that the reviewers are also aware of this clarification.”

CIHR also extended the application deadline by 24 hours to May 12.

International survey measures student well-being

Canadian students are being asked to participate in an international survey about their well-being during the pandemic. Researchers based out of the Centre for Population, Family and Health at the University of Antwerp are recruiting student participants from 27 countries across Europe and North America as well as from South Africa to find out how decisions made by their universities have affected students’ workload, stress level, living conditions and behaviours.

According to Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Policies and Health Inequalities at McGill, some 25,000 students at the institution have been sent an invitation to fill out the online questionnaire. Students at Laval University and Université du Québec à Chicoutimi have also been contacted.

Globe and Mail to host webcast on PSE during pandemic

Wondering about how universities have managed the transition to online learning and what it means for the quality of univeristy education? Tomorrow, the Globe and Mail will host a webcast that touches on these questions. Moderated by Globe postsecondary education reporter Joe Friesen, the event features a discussion with Athabasca University president Neil Fassina, Bishop’s University professor (and UA columnist) Jessica Riddell, Universities Canada president Paul Davidson and Catherine Dunne, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. You can submit questions for the group ahead of time. Registration is required.

Something nice

The law school at the University of Toronto has created 60 new research assistant positions for JD students who’ve lost employment opportunities due to the pandemic. The three-week, full-time RA jobs pay $20 per hour and are funded through the law faculty and donations. More than half of professoriate at the faculty contributed research money to help create the new positions.

May 8, 2020

Researchers push back against CIHR application update

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has clarified details about the application process for its “Operating Grant: COVID-19 May 2020 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity” after several prospective applicants reached out with questions about the program’s objectives. In the update posted online yesterday, CIHR explained:

“CIHR’s intention was always that applications would address all five objectives included in the funding opportunity and this will be assessed as part of the review of the application. However, we recognize some clarification within objectives is required to highlight that some elements were not meant to be strictly inclusive. To ensure clarity and transparency, we have made some modifications to the funding opportunity objectives, relevance review, evaluation criteria, and how to apply sections.”

The agency also released the assessment grid that judges will use to evaluate grant applications. The agency added that applicants should clearly explain how the project aligns with these criteria and that “applications deemed not relevant to one or more criteria in the table will be withdrawn.”

With the application deadline set for May 11, some researchers took to Twitter to criticize CIHR on the timing and scope of the updates, especially considering some universities’ internal deadlines for submissions have already passed.

In response, the agency tweeted, “We see this clarification has fallen flat, and we are reconsidering our approach. More to follow shortly.”

The grant will offer up to a total of $107.9 million in project funding as part of the federal government’s suite of rapid response funding related to the pandemic.

Quebec, Ontario to collect race-based COVID-19 data

Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s national director of public health, announced on Wednesday that the province will compile race-based and other demographic data related to the spread of COVID-19 in the province. The news comes after hundreds of Quebec residents, including several health researchers and academics, signed an open letter addressed to all levels of government asking for more-detailed data collection related to the pandemic that includes statistics on sex, gender, disability, ethnocultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Mr. Arruda declined to say what information, specifically, will be collected at this time, but noted that such data will help to identify social determinants of infection and death, and any possible genetic predispositions to the illness. The province joins Toronto, which is already tracking race-based data on COVID-19, as well as Ontario, which also announced on Wednesday that it will collect this information.

For an explainer on the importance of race-based data for understanding the disease and devising public health responses to the pandemic, read our Q&A with Tanya Sharpe, who launched an Instagram Live show about COVID-19 and vulnerable communities.

More COVID-19 data

Statistics Canada has put out an updated dataset on confirmed COVID-19 cases reported by provincial and territorial health authorities from January 15 to May 6, 2020. Several Canadian researchers are also maintaining a repository for open-access epidemiological data on GitHub. They’ve also made that data available as an open-access dashboard. Want something a little slicker? Esri Canada, a GIS-software provider, is maintaining its own dashboard of Canadian pandemic-related data.

Canada tops international survey of COVID-related deaths in long-term care homes

An international group of experts in long-term care policy released research results this week in which Canada is found to have one of the highest proportions of COVID-related deaths in care homes among 14 countries studied. According to the International Long-term Care Policy Network and the Care Policy and Evaluation Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 62 percent of all COVID-related deaths in this country as of May 2 have occurred in long-term care facilities, with British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec hardest hit.

Amy Hsu, a researcher at the Bruyère Research Institute in Ottawa and a professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of medicine, is a co-author on the study. In an interview with the Toronto Star she explains why the situation has gotten so bad in Canada’s care facilities: “One of the things that we noticed was that a lot of people didn’t realize how many of these cases or deaths were concentrated in long-term-care homes until we started to see the fatalities in these settings. … If we actually had better transmission of that information, perhaps we would have recognized the magnitude of the problem earlier.”

Something nice: pandemic pregnancies and presidential donations

Faculty members in the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine have created a one-stop information hub on Instagram about pregnancy and post-partum care during the pandemic. The

Pandemic Pregnancy Guide includes medical information, mental health advice and “tiny tips” from doctors at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Describing it as a “virtual pre-natal class,” Tali Bogler says she decided to start the Instagram page with four colleagues since pregnant patients currently have fewer in-person options for support and information. “We wanted to make sure that patients seeking information had a place to go where they could learn more.”

Barry Craig, president of Huron University College at Western, and Huron political science professor Sara MacDonald, who are married, have personally donated $100,000 to Huron’s emergency student relief fund. The fund, established by the institution’s student union, had already raised $35,000 from the student government and the university college’s administration.

May 7, 2020

Update on performance-based funding

In light of the challenges posed by COVID-19, the Government of Ontario will temporarily delay the rollout of performance-based funding for postsecondary institutions, while Alberta has decided to push on with it.

Under a performance-based model, provincial governments tie a certain percentage of funds granted to a university directly to how that university measures up on certain metrics, like graduation rates and research capacity. (For a critique of performance-based funding models, read Marc Spooner’s take from October 2019.) Ontario was set to implement this approach for the 2020-21 academic year. According to the Globe and Mail, the province will shelve the new policy in order to “focus on the health and safety of students and the continuity of education” this year.

Alberta, however, should have its new policy in place by the end of May. The Globe reports: “Alberta has not yet made public the metrics it will be using in its new system but said it will do so by May 31. Laurie Chandler, a spokeswoman for Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education, did not say whether the metrics will be altered to reflect the changed economic circumstances brought on by the pandemic.”

B.C. releases “restart” plan with blended learning encouraged for fall

Postsecondary students in British Columbia will likely return to class with a mix of online and in-person courses this September, according to the provincial government. On Wednesday, Premier John Horgan revealed B.C.’s plan for reopening the province, which includes a full resumption of classes at all education levels in September. Students at the K-12 level will return for a “dry run” on a voluntary basis in June, before a full return to class as part of “phase 3” of the province’s “restart” plan.

According to a strategy document released by the province, the return to the physical classroom at universities and colleges will require institutions to adhere to certain new measures, including daily COVID-19 screenings for all staff and students (whatever that means), frequent cleaning of campus spaces, early arrival and self-isolation requirements for incoming international students, and explicit policies for students and staff showing symptoms of cold, flu or COVID-19. Institutions are encouraged to implement a blended learning approach to classes as a way of balancing “the need of social interaction for learning and development” against public health measures.

Manitoba to match bursary donations 1:1

Manitoba will provide more funding for students for the 2020-21 school year. The province announced yesterday that it will match dollar-for-dollar all funds raised by universities and colleges for the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative. Typically, the province offers a dollar for every two dollars raised or donated privately to postsecondary institutions for the provincial bursary. The province has also pledged an additional $5 million to the bursary program on top of the $10 million promised in the 2020 budget. In previous years, between 13,000 to 14,700 students have been awarded bursaries.

Premier Brian Pallister said this increase comes in recognition of the exceptional financial challenges students are facing this year due to the pandemic. “We are facing the obstacles in front of us together, and it is imperative that we rely on our strong partnership with postsecondary institutions and our shared vision for access to education,” he said in a press release.

Earlier in this month the province required postsecondary institutions to submit scenarios that would see their budgets cut by at least 10 percent.

Julie Payette in conversation with Mona Nemer today

At 11:30 this morning, Governor General Julie Payette will host a livestreamed conversation with Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science advisor, about the role of research and science advice in the midst of a pandemic. The conversation will take place over YouTube.

Something nice

Barbara Layne, foreground.

Barbara Layne, co-director of the Textiles and Materiality Cluster at Concordia University’s Milieux Institute, is leading a team of volunteer sewers to make about 2,500 non-medical fabric masks for health-care workers. Some of the masks designed and produced by the Concordia team will also be used on campus in place of medical-grade masks, which have been donated to the health-care facilities.

May 6, 2020

Canadian Science Policy Conference moves November event online

CSPC announced on Tuesday that its annual conference will take place online this year. Organizers made the decision a full six months before the event was scheduled to take place in Ottawa. The news comes with an extended call for panel submissions and a reduced registration fee. Here’s what CSPC is planning, in broad strokes:

“CSPC 2020 will feature a week-long variety of engaging and informative online sessions including panel discussions, workshops, live interviews, online networking opportunities, and even virtual exhibitions. Registered participants will have the opportunity to watch sessions live and on-demand. Live sessions will be held throughout the day, such that participants across time zones will be able to attend them.”

The theme for this year’s conference is, “New Decade, New Realities: Hindsight, Insight, Foresight.”

New tech for disinfecting spaces

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre is testing the efficacy of a robot that disinfects spaces using ultraviolet light. The institute ordered the UV-Disinfection robot as the new coronavirus was starting to spread through Europe and China. The robot will be tested in patient and procedure rooms and will also be assessed for use in disinfecting stretchers and N-95 masks.

The Danish-made autonomous robot positions itself near “infectious hotspots” and emits concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light that reportedly breaks down the DNA structure of harmful microorganisms such as viruses.

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“It is not new to disinfect with UV-C, but the combination of ultraviolet light and robotics makes this technology very interesting,” says Rami Tohme, director of infrastructure and biomedical engineering at the RI-MUHC. And though it’s not meant to replace human cleaners, he adds that the robot “can apparently achieve a higher disinfection efficiency in less time compared to existing solutions. It’s definitely worth evaluating.”

At Western University, caretakers have been equipped with electrostatic sprayers (eSprayers) to speed up the disinfecting process in campus facilities. They might look like props from Star Trek, but these sprayers are the real deal. Western explains how they work: “An electrode in the nozzle negatively charges the sprayed solution. As surfaces are either neutral or positively charged, the mist of sterilizing liquid adheres on contact. Following a 10-minute dwell time, the surface is dry and disinfected. The units hold about a litre of solution that covers 2,800 square-feet – the equivalent of about six or seven classrooms, including fixtures and furnishings.”

The sprayers were originally used to sterilize clinic and recreation centre spaces but have since been taken up by building management staff.

Research on pets and COVID-19

Infectious disease experts at the University of Calgary set up a task force to review the limited research that exists about the transmission risk between humans and domestic animals with regards to COVID-19 and other coronaviruses. As a result, the task force put together a fact sheet in response to some frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and pets. Wondering if your pet might be at risk? Check out the FAQ here.

The task force found a huge knowledge gap about coronaviruses and domestic animals, and researchers at the University of Guelph have set out to address it. Scott Weese and Dorothee Bienzle from U of G’s department of pathobiology are testing pets from households where a person has either tested positive for COVID-19, or where a person has had symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The goal is to understand how human-to-animal spread occurs, how often it happens, which animals are most susceptible and why, and how the genetic sequencing of the virus in pets compares against that of the virus in humans.  As of last week, a dozen pets had been tested. The researchers are hoping to recruit “several dozen” more pet participants.

How’d they do it?

Researchers at Western University are looking into the agility of Canada’s manufacturing sector in response to the global pandemic. From distilleries that started making batches of sanitizer to fashion labels that switched to producing non-medical masks and gowns, the goal is to find out how so many businesses were able to pivot their manufacturing processes so quickly and just how many made these kinds of pandemic-related work transitions. Psychology professor Johanna Weststar, who specializes in industrial relations and human resources, is leading the project, which is partially funded by Mitacs.

Something nice

Vancouver Island University’s G.R. Paine Horticultural Training Centre will be growing seedlings and preparing them for transplant on behalf of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. One way the society addresses food insecurity in the local community is by growing produce and selling it at a low price to community members through its Good Food Box program. As part of its emergency response to COVID-19, the group has had to double its monthly Good Food Box distribution.

May 5, 2020

How do COVID-19 tests work?

That’s a question that Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science advisor, set out to answer on Twitter today. She posted an infographic explaining the difference between two types of tests for COVID-19. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test uses a long swab to collect a sample from the nose or throat to determine if a patient is currently infected. Serology tests require a blood sample to detect the presence of virus antibodies, which would signal a past infection. Since the tests serve different functions, both are essential in the fight against the disease.

N.S.-based COVID-19 research gets a boost

The research community in Nova Scotia will collectively invest more than $1.5 million in 40 N.S.-based research projects on COVID-19. The COVID-19 Health Research Coalition revealed which projects will receive funding yesterday. The biggest funding amount, $75,000, will be directed to Ingrid Waldron an associate professor of nursing at Dalhousie University, who is leading a study on the collection of race-based health data and its impact on access to COVID-19 testing, treatment and infection rates specifically in communities with a high proportion of Nova Scotians of African descent.

The coalition is a partnership between Dalhousie University, the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, Research Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Health Authority, the QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation, the Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation, the IWK Health Centre and its foundation.

International partnership for genomic research on virus

The Canadian COVID Genomics Network, created as part of the $1.1-billion COVID-19 research plan announced by the federal government on April 23, has partnered with the COVID-19 Genomics U.K. consortium, which will share information, data and protocols that will help the Canadian group’s efforts to sequence the genomes of up to 150,000 viral samples and 10,000 patients. The U.K. network is an alliance of academic, healthcare and public health organizations working together to rapidly sequence and analyze SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes.

Brock offers flexible options for grad students

Last week, Brock University’s senate decided on a plan that will offer research-based graduate students flexible options for meeting degree requirements. Dissertation defenses and dissertation-committee meetings have already moved online, and now students will also have the option to remain enrolled in their programs, to choose “Final Stage Status” if they have already completed 75 percent of the first draft of their thesis and all coursework, or to take an “inactive” term. Details here.

Survey of North American students about fall 2020

Top Hat, a Canadian classroom-management system, has released a survey of more than 3,000 college and university students in North America about the quality of online education during the winter 2020 term and their plans for the upcoming fall term. Many (26 percent) were undecided about their return to school and just 7 percent said they wouldn’t return if the term would be online only. View the survey infographic here.

Something nice: Congrats graduates!

With convocation on hold for the Class of 2020, Emily Carr University of Art + Design is celebrating its graduating students with a purpose-built website. The site includes a heartfelt message from president Gillian Siddall, a full list of graduating students and their programs, a Class of 2020 social media frame students can download, and a link to a very sweet video of support from several faculty members, incoming students, and other community members (our personal fave: that catchy tune by Lulu and her dad!).

And something not so nice, actually

While this update tends to stick to Canadian news, we highly recommend today’s episode of The Daily podcast from The New York Times. We’ve heard from a lot of students and instructors about the challenges of transitioning to online education (see our opinion piece “A professor asked her students how they were coping. Here’s what they said.”), but this story by Times’ reporter Nicholas Casey literally gives a voice to that struggle. The piece reveals how this global pandemic exposes the lie behind higher-ed as the “great equalizer” as some students and professors are forced to contend with huge work disruptions outside the campus bubble.

May 4, 2020

Return to work

As some provinces begin to relax mandatory business closures and stay-at-home orders in the next few weeks, universities in these provinces have started initiating their own plans for reopening campuses. Yesterday, McGill University released details about “phase one” of restarting some on-campus research activities as of May 11. The university will start by reopening six targeted buildings containing labs conducting research in such fields as health, natural sciences, agriculture, forestry and engineering (these are the research areas currently being prioritized by the Quebec government).

The update included a link to precautions for containing the spread of COVID-19 that researchers must comply with in order to resume their work. In addition to outlining specific permission procedures as well as health and safety measures, the directives state that principal investigators returning to work must be prepared “for a sudden shut down following university or government directives or should other circumstances arise that would limit activities (e.g., a reported case of a COVID infection in a lab group).” Meanwhile, neighbouring Université du Québec à Montréal is preparing to welcome some researchers back as of today, however the institution has yet to publicly release specific details of what the return to work will look like.

At the University of Prince Edward Island, some faculty members and students will resume research activities as of May 25. That’s the start date for “stage one” of the university’s “operational ease-back plan,” which will also see the university’s management team return to campus. The number of people working on campus will be reviewed and expanded by June 15 (stage two) and again for August 1 (stage three).

Studies suggest COVID-19 cases higher than reported and that children are as infectious as adults

This gradual return to work for some comes even as more research suggests that SARS-CoV-2 infections are more widespread in Canada than reported. This conclusion comes from a statistical study released by economists at Université de Montréal, which found that Ontario likely has 18 times as many cases as officially reported, while Quebec likely has 12 times the number of cases. Taking into account just these two provinces, there could be nearly half-a-million unreported cases of COVID-19 reported (the official count of COVID-19 cases in Canada as of this morning is 59,844). The researchers used official Canadian data and applied a statistical measure “that corrects for non-random testing to estimate population infection rates in Quebec and Ontario.” They chalk up the discrepancy to limited testing capabilities and to differences in reporting standards between the provinces. In an interview with Radio-Canada International, the researchers said their findings suggest “that either because of the constraints in testing or because people with mild symptoms don’t bother to go and get tested,” the official numbers significantly understate how widespread the disease is.

An associate professor of microbiology and immunology at McGill also spoke out this weekend in support of German research that found children could just as easily transmit COVID-19 as adults – findings that come as Quebec and P.E.I. prepare to reopen elementary schools and some day care facilities. Christian Drosten, a virologist and Germany’s leading coronavirus expert, recently released a study that found viral loads in children were not much different from those in adults and that “opening schools on the assumption that children are less likely to spread the virus was therefore ill-advised.”

In an interview with CTV, McGill’s Jorg Fitz said he was taking these results very seriously. “Based on these results we have to caution against an unlimited opening of schools and kindergartens until we’ve verified it.” He added that Canada – and Quebec in particular – is not prepared to reopen as we don’t yet have the means to test and trace all cases of COVID-19, control outbreaks in high-risk facilities (like seniors’ homes) nor do we have tested and enforceable workplace health and safety measures in place.

University instructors speak out

Last week, several organizations representing postsecondary instructors released letters calling on decision-makers to provide financial support for the sector.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking the federal government to bolster public funding for postsecondary institutions to offset anticipated financial losses due to the pandemic. The letter outlines three recommendations for this: extend access to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to colleges and universities (presently, publicly funded institutions are not eligible for the wage subsidy, although CAUT argues that public funding made up less than half of revenue at postsecondary institutions last year); work with provinces and institutions to offer tuition waivers; increase federal transfer payments to the provinces for postsecondary education with the expectation of improving affordability, accessibility and quality of education.

“Universities and colleges are integral to the solving of Canada’s current and future challenges. We are writing to urge you to take immediate steps to further close the gaps in emergency support and commit to making changes to improve the affordability and sustainability of post-secondary education as part of a recovery plan that ensures a stronger and more just post-Covid-19 Canada,” writes CAUT president Brenda Austin-Smith and executive director David Robinson.

The All-Unions Alliance, a collective of 16 faculty unions from Nova Scotia postsecondary institutions co-led by the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers, also published an open letter to university administrators, provincial and federal governments. The group is asking for a reduction of student tuition fees, an increase in student bursaries, and a ban on layoffs and cuts to PSE programs and services, all while accepting “the necessity of deficits this year as they work to return to normalcy from the current pandemic.” Noting that postsecondary institutions are significant employers and recruit many new residents to Atlantic Canada, the group points out that “businesses are being given financial support to help them survive now and recover when the state of emergency is over. But no lifeline has been held out to Nova Scotia’s postsecondary institutions.”

In British Columbia, the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. issued a similar statement, recommending that governments and university institutions, among others, ensure stable funding to the sector; rely on the advice of academic experts for pandemic-related decision-making; and increase funding to RAs and TAs. The statement also detailed ways institutions and governments could protect “vulnerable faculty” through a variety of measures, such as contract extensions, financial support for the resources to transition to online learning, compassionate leave options, and accommodations for instructors who are also caregiving at home. And, for its part, the Federation of Post-secondary Educators of B.C. published a statement of support for laid-off workers in private postsecondary institutions.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations voiced its concern about “the erosion of democratic, transparent, and accountable collegial governance practices at Ontario’s universities as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The group called out university administrations that are making academic decisions without proper consideration for shared governance procedures involving senates or academic councils.

“As institutions shift to making longer-term decisions about their academic and operational activities for the summer and fall terms, they face challenging decisions about how to carry out the teaching and research that is core to their purpose. OCUFA is extremely worried by the unilateral and non-consultative approaches some administrations have engaged in to make these decisions…. [U]niversities must not use this pandemic as an excuse to ignore their democratic, transparent, and accountable collegial governance structures. University administrations must respect collegial governance and the voices of faculty.”

Something nice

York University’s faculty of science is offering a total of $50,000 to help its students (undergrads and grad students alike) in online courses this summer. The York Science Summer Student Success Fund will provide up to 1,000 students with a $50 discount at the university bookstore for required or recommended textbooks on the syllabus for 2020 summer courses.

May 1, 2020


Quebec extends international student visa

The province of Quebec has extended Quebec Acceptance Certificates (CAQ) for international students whose permits were set to expire as of April 30. They have been automatically renewed until December 31, 2020.

Most students registered for courses at a Quebec institution must receive a CAQ before applying to the federal government for a study permit, explains Canada Immigration News. Radio-Canada reports that in a letter to immigration lawyers, Quebec’s immigration minister explained his office made this decision so not to penalize international students who were unable to complete their study programs and are now stuck in the province because of the public health crisis. He said the automatic extension will simplify the renewal process for federal-level study permits for these students.

University president seeks federal help for international students

International students were also top of mind for Cape Breton University president David Dingwall. In a statement released on April 23 – just after the federal government unveiled the Canada Emergency Student Benefit – he criticized the CESB’s eligibility requirements, which limit the aid package to Canadian residents and citizens. International students, who are here under temporary study permits, do not qualify.

“Like Canadian students, international students are facing hardship due to COVID-19. Many rely on employment during the summer months to help support their education and gain experience to reach their career goals, an option that is now in jeopardy,” Mr. Dingwall said.

While no aid package has specifically addressed the needs of international students, the federal government did drop work-hour restrictions for international students. On April 22, the government announced it would allow international students to work “in an essential service or function, such as health care, critical infrastructure, or the supply of food or other critical goods” for more than the usual 20 hours a week until August 31, 2020.

USask lays off 500 employees

The University of Saskatchewan will temporarily lay off 500 employees due to pandemic-related campus closures and work-from-home directives. The layoffs will last 12 weeks, until the university has a better understanding of how it will roll-out its campus re-opening. According to the Star-Phoenix, “affected employees will be able to claim the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. The university will also provide a top-up to the federal benefit, bringing the laid-off staff to 85 percent of their usual salaries. Laid-off workers will also keep their benefits and access to university services such as email accounts.”

NSERC reaches out

Yesterday, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council president Alejandro Adem sent an email to reassure award recipients and stakeholders of the agency’s commitment to researchers and their work during the crisis:

“We are working hard to provide stability for the months ahead and will continue to adjust programs as the situation evolves, including flexibility for our deadlines. By offering an automatic one-year, funded extension for all active Discovery Grants we hope to be able to offset the incredible disruption caused by the pandemic. The Government of Canada has also announced significant emergency support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, details for this are being worked out and will be available soon. Our staff are also focused on the quick dispersal of emergency Government investments in research related to COVID-19 as we search for near-term treatments and long-term solutions. … [D]espite the technical challenges of physical distancing, we are powering ahead with operations as usual, including the recent, much-anticipated announcement of the 2020 Discovery Grants competition. Indeed, I want to take this opportunity to strongly emphasize that all NSERC research projects are important to our agency.”

SFU launches COVID-19 response network on Slack, Zoom

Simon Fraser University launched an online hub for pandemic-related information. While most universities have created similar one-stop sites, an interesting addition to SFU’s are its Zoom- and Slack-based online networks that connect SFU community members who are working to respond to COVID-19 in some way. Check out the SFU-Community COVID-19 Response and Recovery Network here.

Something nice: Star Wars for a good cause

The University of Victoria’s faculty of fine arts and Farquhar Auditorium are coordinating a free livestream of a one-man restaging of the Star Wars trilogy as a fundraiser for the university’s student emergency bursary. UVic alum Charles Ross will perform his One-Man Star Wars Trilogy on Monday, May 4, in celebration of “May the Fourth be with you” day. The actor has toured the production in London’s West End, the Sydney Opera House and off-Broadway in New York. The show is “suitable for ages six to Yoda.”

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