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COVID-19 updates for September 2020

BY UA/AU | SEP 30 2020

September 30, 2020

Infectious disease expert steps down from federal task force on COVID-19 vaccine

Gary Kobinger, director of the centre for infectious disease research (Centre de recherche en infectiologie) at Université Laval, has left the national COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. The microbiologist says he stepped down from the task force over concerns about conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency. (The federal government doesn’t require members of the group to publicly declare conflicts of interest.) In an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, Dr. Kobinger said that “anything that may undermine the confidence in vaccines, you may pay a high price in public health, not only for COVID, but later on for other vaccines.”

The task force supports and helps facilitate vaccine research and manufacturing, and to “attract” international vaccine projects. The task force is prioritizing a COVID-19 vaccine, but it is also advising and supporting the development of other vaccines. It was struck in the spring, but its members were only recently disclosed to the public.

The CBC reports that in the days following Dr. Kobinger’s official departure from the group, a spokesperson for the National Research Council provided Global News with a list of the members’ potential conflicts of interest. The Council also confirmed the list would be updated going forward.

COVID-19 testing on campus

On Oct. 1, a new COVID-19 testing centre will open on the University of Waterloo campus. The centre will be located in the campus health services building and will only be accessible to students and university employees.

Meanwhile, Western University relocated its on-campus testing centre indoors this week on account of colder weather in the region. The Western COVID-19 Testing Clinic for students and staff is now open at the Western Student Recreation Centre, with certain hours reserved specifically for faculty and staff.

American university student dies of COVID complications

A student at Appalachian State University died after contracting COVID-19. The university in Boone, North Carolina, confirmed the death of 19-year-old Chad Dorrill earlier this week. Times Higher Education reports that the sophmore’s death is one of the first confirmed COVID-related fatalities among the student population in the United States. He had been living off campus and studying online when he started feeling ill earlier this month.

THE notes that Appalachian State is recording a rising number of student cases – as of Tuesday, the university’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 159 active cases among students. It has tracked 561 cases among students, 26 among employees and 41 among subcontractors since March 27. The university is offering a blended learning model this fall.

McMaster monitors campus wastewater for coronavirus

McMaster University has started monitoring its wastewater as an early warning to the presence of the novel coronavirus on campus.

Gail Krantzberg, a professor at the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology, is working on the initiative with colleague Zobia Jawed. She explains the reason behind the monitoring project: “While testing the population for the presence of the virus is critically important, some carriers of the illness are asymptomatic and don’t get tested. Others get false negatives. Since those infected shed the virus in their feces, testing wastewater captures the reality of COVID-19 in the community.”

The research team is analyzing raw sewage at 13 sites on campus including residences and the McMaster Children’s Hospital.

Drs. Krantzberg and Jawed are leading this project as part of a wider provincial initiative called the COVID-19 Wastewater Consortium of Ontario. A July press release outlining the provincial project suggested that wastewater monitoring can “address the current limitations of clinical COVID-19 testing which include the availability of reliable test kits, false positives, cost logistics and lingering issues of identifying those who may be mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic.”

Other universities, like Queen’s, are participating in similar projects, but it’s not clear whether or not these involve campus facilities.

100 students may face disciplinary action at Western

Western University says some 100 students are being investigated under the student code of conduct after campus security showed up at parties in campus residence halls last weekend. The Globe and Mail reports that the university’s president Alan Shepard had warned students that Western would use the “full force of the code of student conduct” if students risked the health and safety of others.

Memorial endorses COVID Alert app

Memorial University is asking faculty members, employees and students to download and activate the COVID Alert app. The app became available in Newfoundland and Labrador at the start of September and is also accessible in Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Quebec has signaled that the app will be available there within the next few days as the province struggles to contain a second wave of COVID-19.

September 28, 2020

Update on case counts

From Friday to Sunday, the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) reported 31 new cases of COVID-19 in the region. Of those, 22 cases involve Western University students. Chris Mackie, MLHU’s medical officer of health, said that some 60 cases in total had been tied to Western students as of Friday. A Global News report notes that at least 23 of those cases can be tied to a large house party on the weekend of September 12.

Four students at Queen’s University have tested positive for COVID-19. The university and the local health authority confirmed on Friday that three students live off campus and are self-isolating at home. One student lives in residence on campus and is also self-isolating.

As of last Tuesday, McGill University was reporting six cases of COVID-19 on campus. (The university updates its case count every Tuesday.) Students, however, say that the official count doesn’t accurately reflect how the virus is affecting the university community since it doesn’t take into account cases contracted off campus. Thom Haghighat, a McGill student, told the CBC that he “knows of at least 25 students living in the area who tested positive, with a dozen in his immediate group of friends.” Jacob Rothery, also a McGill student living in Montreal, recently tested positive for COVID-19 as did three of his roommates. He claims to know of at least 20 other student cases.

Alberta universities seek delay on performance-based funding

Universities in Alberta are hoping the provincial government will rethink plans to roll out a new performance-based funding model in 2021-22. The government has already delayed the roll out by a year, but institutions are saying that their pandemic-related challenges won’t be over by then.

“We’re dealing with a massive restructuring, we’re dealing with a sector review, and we’re dealing with COVID,” University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “There is a lot on the go, so I think a pause on that might be appropriate, just given the scale of all of the challenges facing both the postsecondary sector and the province.”

The new plan would tie 15 percent of provincial funding to yet-to-be-determined performance indicators. By the third year of the roll out, that would increase to 40 percent of funding.

Despite concerns by the province’s senior university leaders, Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, said an additional delay isn’t in the plans, and that the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic make the new model a high priority. He did acknowledge that the program would have to be adapted.

“The starting point may be quite different post-pandemic than pre-pandemic,” he said. “We don’t want to take metrics and scores on employability, research activity or whatever it is pre-pandemic and then apply those to institutions moving forward.”

September 25, 2020

COVID-19 cases at Queen’s, USherbrooke

The Kingston Whig Standard reports that a case of COVID-19 was confirmed at Queen’s University on Thursday. The case involves a woman under 20 living in residence on campus.

This week, Université de Sherbrooke launched a site listing the number of COVID-19 cases reported on its three campuses since the first day of the fall term. There are currently 36 active cases on campus. Another 21 cases are categorized as resolved. Out of the 57 total cases on campus since the first week of September, 21 involved individuals in the faculty of education. The next hardest hit are the faculties of humanities and business, with nine cases each. Radio-Canada reports that several education students contracted the disease as part of an outbreak tied to a local microbrewery. U de Sherbrooke is one of the few institutions in Canada that has committed to a largely in-person fall term.

Universities confirm winter plans

Over the past few weeks, universities have started to confirm their plans for the winter term. Most have opted to continue with online courses for the majority of their programs. Here’s what some universities are planning so far:

  • The University of Regina will continue with primarily online courses for its winter term. “The winter 2021 term will look much like the fall term. Courses will primarily be delivered remotely with the exception of a limited number of low-density face-to-face classes, labs, studios and clinical placements.”
  • The University of Calgary will continue with a blended-learning model. “For the winter term, academic units will be planning their face-to-face course components within a 30-student maximum cap as a guideline, with some possible exceptions.”
  • The University of Alberta will offer a combination of in-person, remote and online instruction. “For winter 2021, we will continue to prioritize in-person learning where it is essential for program completion or progression; and, we will explore all opportunities to increase our current roster of in-person course offerings on our campuses to maximize student learning (lectures, graduate research, practicums, experiential placements, etc.) up to 30 percent within public health guidelines.”
  • Queen’s University announced “most courses will continue to be delivered remotely in the 2021 winter t A small number of on-campus academic activities will be held based on the need for some students to access specialized facilities, such as labs or clinical settings, and to ensure all students can meet the academic requirements of their programs.”
  • York University will maintain its online and remote course delivery for winter. York says it is “preserving flexibility” where small studio, lab and graduate classes are concerned.
  • McMaster University will extend “this fall’s online delivery of academic programs into the winter term.”
  • Brock University said it “will continue with primarily online classes for the full academic year.”
  • At the University of Windsor, “most courses will be online during the winter 2021 term.”
  • Leadership at Wilfrid Laurier University has “decided that the majority of the winter 2021 term will continue to be offered in a remote and online format, with select in-person courses.”
  • Courses at Ryerson University will be “largely online.”
  • The University of British Columbia will preserve online learning, but will offer some in-person learning for “programs in the health field such as medicine, nursing, dentistry and occupational therapy, the theatre and film program and the school of music.”
  • Online courses will continue at the University of Ottawa.
  • And same goes for the University of Waterloo.

September 23, 2020

COVID-19 cases at U of Guelph, Carleton and Western

The CBC reports that a student attending the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus has tested positive for COVID-19. According to the university’s cases on campus website, public health has also recently notified the institution about a separate case involving an individual at the main campus in Guelph.

Meanwhile, Carleton University says a total of five people who visited campus within the last 14 days have tested positive for COVID-19. The Charlatan, Carleton’s student newspaper, reports that the university confirmed on September 22 that two of these cases involved students living on campus. On September 12, the university announced its first case involving a student in on-campus housing (see the update published on September 14).

Another student at Western University has tested positive for COVID-19 this week. According to the Western Gazette, eight new COVID-19 cases confirmed in London since Saturday, September 19, have been linked to an outbreak within the Western student community. Seven of those cases involve a Western student. The local health authority said this reflected a downturn in cases among the student population. The health unit is not including two “high-risk probable cases” in its case count, however. These two cases involve Western students who have declined testing but were close contacts to a person who tested positive for the virus.

Western study examines impact of returning students on COVID-19 case count

At least a few people at Western saw this rise in COVID-19 cases coming. Lauren Cipriano, an associate professor at Western’s Ivey Business School, led an investigation into what impact students could have on infection rates in mid-size cities. Using London, Ontario, as her model, Dr. Cipriano and her team found returning students could nearly double the number of COVID-19 cases in the city within a semester. The researchers also suggested that aggressive and targeted testing strategies could help to stem such increases: their model found that testing students every 14 days could bring down the number of infections introduced by students by 22 percent.

SSHRC names winners of Partnership Engage Grants COVID-19 Special Initiative

On Monday, the federal government announced investments of more than $4 million for projects funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Partnership Engage Grants. The government says the new funding will support 172 projects and nearly 600 researchers who are collaborating with Canadian businesses and community organizations. The grants are intended to “provide short-term and timely support for partnered research activities that will inform decision-making in the public, private or not-for-profit sector.”

Approximately $3 million of that funding is earmarked specifically for projects in the Partnership Engage Grants COVID-19 Special Initiative, a competition for research that addresses the current health crisis. When the call was put out for the special initiative earlier this year, SSHRC explained that it was hoping to fill significant research gaps: “While much needed focus to date has been on developing and testing effective countermeasures to control the spread of the virus, examining the longer-term impacts of the pandemic – and the ensuing economic slowdown – on individuals, businesses and communities is just as important.” Some of the funded projects will look at disaster preparedness in the homeless population, how the pandemic has affected postsecondary students with disabilities, the health and safety of migrant workers, and stress-reduction among K-12 teachers.

SSHRC has published a full list of successful applicants to the special initiative funding on its website.

Survey finds international students from China ‘deeply concerned’ about postsecondary life in Canada

Easy Group, a Toronto-based tutoring company for international students, has released the results of a survey of 389 Chinese international students who had either enrolled or intended to enroll at a Canadian university this fall. They represented 12 different Canadian institutions, with the largest number coming from the University of Toronto’s three campuses, followed by the University of British Columbia, McMaster University and McGill University; most respondents were in STEM or business programs. In a summary of their findings, the company reported that “over half of the survey respondents won’t travel to Canada this year,” despite being enrolled; nearly 70 percent “dislike the prospect of online learning” and 90 percent “believe universities should lower their tuition fees.”

The results also suggest that students are concerned about the quality of their educational experience this year. “Online learning can pose significant difficulties and anxieties, especially among those who speak English as a second language. The opportunities for comprehensive immersion in a foreign language and culture are a significant part of the appeal of studying in a foreign country, and these advantages may be diminished, or even altogether lost, on a virtual campus,” Easy Group explains. Not only did survey respondents express concern for their mental health and well-being during this school year, they are also worried about COVID-19 as well as a perceived rise in anti-Chinese sentiment.

September 21, 2020

COVID-19 cases at Laurier and UTM, outbreak at U of A residence

The University of Alberta has confirmed an outbreak of COVID-19 in its St. Joseph’s College residence. Five residents of the men’s hall have tested positive for the illness. The hall’s remaining 14 residents will be self-isolating for 14 days. According to U of A, the cases involve university athletes and so “to best protect the health and safety of our community,” all in-person varsity sports will be cancelled for 14 days. Classes, labs and research activities will continue as planned on North Campus, where the residence building is located. St. Joseph’s College is also home to a women’s dorm.

Four students at Wilfrid Laurier University have tested positive for COVID-19. The university reports that the students live off campus and are in quarantine.

On Friday, the student union at the University of Toronto Mississauga shut down some on-campus services and facilities for 14 days after learning that two people who tested positive for COVID-19 had visited the student centre. The university says that the student centre will be cleaned and disinfected before it reopens. UTM operations and facilities aren’t affected by the student union shut down and confirms that “there is no elevated risk to any other members of the UTM or broader university community.”

Maclean’s magazine asks, “will universities survive COVID-19?”

Cape Breton University, which has a huge international student population, has lost $16.6 million in revenue, says university president David Dingwell. He points to a significant drop in student enrolment this fall as the main culprit. To mitigate the impact, CBU has cut work-related travel, cut 60 term positions and implemented a wage roll back. The university has also tapped out its $6.2-million reserve fund.

The situation at CBU is playing out at universities across the country – major revenue losses even as institution’s pump money into their COVID-19 responses and operating costs grow. Speaking to Maclean’s, McGill University provost Christopher Manfredi compares it to “a heart attack versus chronic high blood pressure. The heart attack requires instantaneous intervention to prevent the damage, but high blood pressure requires constant monitoring. We’re in the chronic high blood pressure stage of this.”

Dr. Manfredi is speaking of various governmental cuts and rollbacks that have put Canadian universities into a precarious financial situation even before the pandemic hit. The article goes on to list some of those cuts and their effects – chief among them, a reliance on international students and their tuition fees – before outlining some of the ways that governments have tried to fill the financial gap during the pandemic.

“Across the country, government support to universities in the wake of the pandemic has been uneven. Quebec agreed to provide grants equivalent to 2018-19 enrolment numbers … ‘That’s really taken the pressure off,’ says [Dr.] Manfredi. The Ontario government provided $25 million to 45 colleges and universities ‘to help each institution address their most pressing needs,’ and delayed the introduction of performance-based funding for two years; Alberta delayed a similar initiative by one year. Manitoba halted previously planned cuts and announced a $25.6-million fund that schools can access provided they show how they will meet labour market demands, deal with uncertain enrolment and deliver online learning. The Nova Scotia government has provided schools with their full operating grant upfront this year instead of in monthly instalments, and will go forward with a planned one percent increase in funding. B.C. provided emergency funds for students when the pandemic hit, but did not offer any support to schools. And Ottawa instituted the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, which provided between $1,200 and $1,750 per month to students who were unable to work full-time over the summer and weren’t eligible for other income support.”

Tuition fees up for 2020-21: StatCan

One possible stopgap for a loss of government funding (and revenue, to some extent) is higher tuition fees. And according to new data from Statistics Canada, it’s a tool that several universities are making use of. In an analysis published today, the agency states that “tuition fees for degree programs increased for both undergraduate and graduate students for the 2020-2021 academic year. While the fall 2020 term will see postsecondary institutions continue to offer online instruction in response to the pandemic, students will pay higher tuition fees on average compared with the previous academic year.”

Statistics Canada found that students in full-time undergraduate programs will pay an average of $6,610 in tuition, which is an increase of 1.8 percent over the 2019-2020 school year. Graduate programs rose by 1.6 percent to an average of $7,304. The average tuition fees for international undergraduate students went up by 7.1 percent to $32,041. (The agency notes, however, that prior to the pandemic, international students faced a similar increase of 7.6 percent for the 2019-2020 academic year.)

The analysis found undergrad tuition remained relatively stable in Ontario, while Alberta faced the steepest increase, at 7.1 percent. (In response to the finding that tuition had gone up on average more than 5 percent in Saskatchewan, the University of Regina emailed a statement to media this morning reiterating that it would not be increasing tuition for the current school year.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest undergrad tuition rates were found in professional programs such as dentistry and medicine, while MBAs charge the highest fees among graduate programs.

Head of federal Public Health steps down, employees demand vacancy be filled by scientists

Last week, the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, Tina Namiesniowski, resigned. She stepped down amidst two federal investigations into the department’s handling of the country’s pandemic monitoring system as well as questions about a national shortage of personal protective equipment as Canada seemingly enters a second wave of the COVID-19 crisis.

The resignation of PHAC’s president came just a week after PHAC vice-president, Sally Thornton, retired from the organization. Ms. Namiesniowski came to the role at PHAC from the Border Services Agency, with a background in political science and a long career in public service. Ms. Thornton’s had studied law and previously worked at the Treasury Board and Privy Council. Now, current and former PHAC employees are telling The Globe and Mail that these top jobs should go to leaders with experience in the sciences, if not specifically in public health.

“Several Public Health employees, who can’t be named owing to fears they could face reprisals, have told The Globe that they often struggled to communicate urgent and complex messages up the chain of command inside Public Health. Because senior officials within the department lacked an understanding of the science, key messages often had to be ‘dumbed down’ one scientist told The Globe this summer.”

What does the future hold for Mona Nemer?

In other federal appointment news, Mona Nemer’s three-year term as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor comes to an end on Thursday, September 24. The government has yet to give any indication as to what the future holds for the role, which was restored in 2017 after nearly a decade-long hiatus. In an email to University Affairs, a spokesperson for the Privy Council Office said that information about the posting will be made available in due course. (The Privy Council provided the same answer to the National Observer, which reported on the uncertainty surrounding the end of the appointment earlier this month.)

Since the pandemic was declared, Dr. Nemer has played a role in the federal government’s response by helping to found and oversee the CanCOVID research network, participating in the federal COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and advising parliamentarians on the situation.

Noting that science-based decision-making is paramount to the nation’s pandemic response, Evidence for Democracy has penned an open letter asking the federal government to enshrine the Chief Science Advisor role in legislation. The group is also asking that the role’s mandate be updated to reflect a rapidly changing scientific landscape and that this expansion of responsibility come with a funding increase of $2 million (the Observer piece notes that this would effectively double the office’s budget). The letter garnered more than 2,000 signatures, but hasn’t received a response from the government.

Higher-ed program for inmates on hiatus

Walls to Bridges, a program that brings postsecondary instructors into correctional facilities to teach courses for inmates, has been on hiatus since the pandemic was declared in March. Officials at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario – the first facility to welcome Walls to Bridges when the program was founded in 2011 – have looked into running the program through video conferencing instead of the program’s usual learning circles, but “Walls to Bridges relies on having students from the outside and inside together in one space without barriers,” said the institution’s director of education. In the meantime, the women who would normally attend classes have been participating in literature exchanges and correspondence in the hopes of starting up again in the spring of 2021.

September 18, 2020

Outbreak at Western grows to 28 cases

Western University says a total of 28 students have now tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a steep rise in cases since Monday, when 5 students were reported to have tested positive. (See our update published on September 14.) All but one of these students live off campus. The student in campus housing is self-isolating in residence. Shortly after noon on Thursday, Western president Alan Shepard announced that the university has cancelled “non-academic activities” on campus, such as athletics, in response to this spike. On-campus courses will continue as planned. An estimated 25 percent of Western classes are taking place face-to-face.

That same day, the president released a direct appeal to students to follow common COVID-19 safety measures (don’t attend house parties, wear a mask inside and outside, stay home if you’re sick, etc.) or risk jeopardizing the hybrid course-delivery model. He also listed several potential side effects of COVID-19 in young people: “[T]wo of our key student health leaders – Dr. Sidney Siu and Dr. Sonya Malone – have told me how this virus can have significant medical consequences, even for young, healthy adults. Permanent lung injury, neurological damage such as long-term cognitive impairment or stroke, and cardiac disease such as heart failure. These can happen to young people as a result of COVID-19.”

The London Free Press has been closely following the outbreak. One story details the events that helped the virus spread, including clubbing, working out at a gym together, playing basketball in a group, attending a house party, sharing drinks, e-cigarettes and rides. The story is based on a visualization of the outbreak prepared by the Middlesex London Health Unit.

On Thursday, Free Press reporters gathered reactions to the outbreak from students on campus. More than one student said the spread of COVID-19 their demographic was “inevitable” with the return of students to the campus town. “Coming here, I knew it was a risk to be taken. I knew there would be people getting COVID and spreading it. It’s kind of inevitable at this point.”

Ken Steele also published a timeline of the outbreak in today’s Eduvation Insider blog.

COVID-19 cases associated with student and staff at Brock, McMaster and U of Ottawa

Brock University says a student living off campus has tested positive for COVID-19. The student has not visited campus and is self-isolating.

McMaster University was notified by the local health authority on September 12 that a university employee had tested positive. The institution said that staff member was last on campus on September 8 and any affected areas have been thoroughly cleaned. Earlier in the month, the university reported that a graduate student tested positive (see our September 2 update).

An employee at the University of Ottawa has tested positive for COVID-19. CTV News reports that the employee had worked in the university’s Tabaret Hall within a week of the positive test result. Tabaret Hall houses central administrative offices including the registrar, admissions and financial services as well as administration for the faculty of social science. According to U of Ottawa’s case tracker, 12 active cases of COVID-19 have been traced to individuals who have been on campus within the last 14 days.

City opens COVID-19 testing site at Queen’s

Kingston Health Sciences Centre has teamed up with Queen’s University to open an assessment centre on campus. Located in Mitchell Hall, the campus centre is open to Queen’s students. It’s intended to ease traffic at other community assessment centres and has the capacity to test 50 to 60 people every weekday.

BHER launches work-integrated-learning program focused on post-pandemic comeback

The Business + Higher Education Roundtable has developed the Comeback Challenge, a competition that will create up to 10,000 work-integrated learning opportunities for postsecondary students and new grads. With support from the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Industry, BHER is setting up an online competition in which student teams will work together and with professionals on pitching solutions to “real-world problems facing employers in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. Participating students will compete for a chance to pitch their ideas to a panel of Canadian leaders, receive mentorship from experienced professionals, and gain exposure to unique challenges in different sectors.”

The Comeback Challenge grew out of a need for new student placement options.

Quebec cancels fall university football, rugby seasons

Quebec’s network for student athletics, RSEQ (Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec), has finally decided to cancel university-level sports programs until the end of 2020. In a statement, RSEQ said its members came to this decision “based primarily on the [province’s] regional alert system, which may limit the participation of universities, even if said institutions effectively manage health-and-safety best practices.” The network will, however, allow “activities involving at least two different teams” in cross-country, golf and soccer. “However, due to universities level of risk management, no inter-team activities will be permitted in football and rugby,” the network added.

RSEQ should have a decision on winter-term leagues by October 15.

Chem prof calls COVID-19 “fake emergency” in syllabus

Michael Palmer, a faculty member in the chemistry department at the University of Waterloo, called the pandemic a “fake emergency” in the syllabus for a fourth-year course. He made the statement under the section “evaluation” while explaining to students why exams have been cancelled for the fall term. The syllabus was posted to Reddit. The university told media that it supports faculty’s right to freedom of expression, though it doesn’t agree with Dr. Palmer’s comment.

“Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be based on the best available advice from public health officials.”

According to the CBC, this isn’t the first time Dr. Palmer has called the COVID-19 pandemic fake. This summer, he accidentally sent an email to his entire faculty calling the health crisis a “faked-up scare.” The dean of science responded to the email saying he was “disappointed by the tone.”

U of Guelph goes cashless

Cash is no longer king on the University of Guelph campus. From now on, the university will only accept debit, credit, and ID cards for payment at food outlets, the library, the bookstore, parking and other stores in the university centre. U of Guelph says it made the decision as an “extra layer of safety and security during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

COVID-19 puts disability rights at risk: Human Rights Commission

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the financial, emotional and physical health of disabled people, says the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In a statement released this week, CHRC urged the federal government to include Canadians with disabilities in their discussions about the next phase of pandemic recovery and public health protocol, and to offer targeted financial relief for this population. The commission points to several issues that create new barriers and risks for people with disabilities, particularly for those with visual impairments who “must rely on touching non-sanitized objects and surfaces,” or for those who rely on lip reading.

“We are asking Canada to incorporate the diverse voices and lived experience of people with disabilities, their families and caregivers into the difficult decisions that are being made during this unprecedented time. All responses and recovery efforts must be intersectional and inclusive of the diverse needs of all people with disabilities.”

September 16, 2020

U of Windsor student tests positive for COVID-19

The University of Windsor announced yesterday that a student living off campus had tested positive for COVID-19. The student is self-isolating at home and did not attend classes on campus. It’s the first case identified among the student population at U of Windsor. The local health unit has not traced any exposure back to campus. In a press release, university president Rob Gordon extended “sincere wishes for a quick recovery to the affected student.”

More cases among Western students

Two more cases of COVID-19 have been reported among Western University’s student population, bringing the total to 7. The local health authority says the two cases are not related to the community outbreak we reported on in Monday’s updated.

The London Free Press is also reporting that Western “is not ruling out using its enhanced code of conduct to discipline students who break COVID-19 public health regulations at off-campus gatherings, penalties that could include expulsion.” The university recently expanded the scope of its student code of conduct to allow for disciplinary measures to be taken against students who contravene the policy off campus. In an interview with the newspaper, Jennifer Massey, Western’s vice-president of student experience, said that “If there is a complaint filed under the code, we’ll review that complaint carefully and we’ll have conversations, if necessary, and implement sanctions where appropriate.”

NSERC releases guidelines for explaining how the pandemic has impacted research

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has released a new set of guidelines to help applicants explain to reviewers how the pandemic has adversely affected research and training activities. NSERC says it prepared these guidelines as a way of recognizing that researchers will experience the impacts of the global health crisis differently based on their unique situations.

“NSERC recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting researchers’ and students’ capacity to conduct their regular research and training activities. NSERC also recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to exacerbate inequities in the natural sciences and engineering research community. Certain identity factors are associated with greater impacts for some members of the research community (e.g., gender, race, Indigenous identity, geographic location, rurality, disability, age, socioeconomic status, career stage, family responsibilities, etc.).”

September 14, 2020

Local health unit declares outbreak after 5 Western students test positive for COVID-19

Western University confirmed that five students have tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. The students live off campus and as of this writing, no on-campus exposure has been found by the Middlesex-London Health Unit or the university, which is helping to conduct contact tracing. However, the students visited downtown bars and restaurants, and had interacted with other student households. The MLHU has declared a community outbreak on Sunday and said it anticipates more cases will come to light in the next few days.

In a media release, Jennifer Massey, Western’s associate vice-president of student experience, confirmed the university’s intention to continue with some limited in-person classes, but noted that this could only happen if students adhere to public health measures.

“We know our students value the opportunity to be on campus and have some in-class experiences – and for this to continue to happen, everyone must play a role in keeping themselves and the community safe by following public health guidelines,” she said. “We know students want to be together and socialize, and we strongly encourage them to avoid parties and large gatherings and ensure their social circles include a maximum of 10 people.”

The news of the community outbreak came a couple days after Western opened a mobile testing centre on campus.

The CBC spoke with students waiting in line at another testing centre in town. One of the students interviewed had been to a bar identified by the public health unit. “I’m worried, but at the end of the day, I mean, we should have been more careful,” said Mia, a Western student from Windsor. “Everyone was so excited to go back and you do feel a sense of being invincible. And then something like this really just snaps you right out of it.”

Université Sainte-Anne expels student for failing to self-isolate

The small francophone university in Church Point, Nova Scotia, has expelled a student for contravening the institution’s COVID-19 Code of Conduct, its student code of conduct and public health measures. Both require students from outside the Atlantic provinces to self-isolate for 14 days once they have arrived in the Atlantic Bubble. The university says that the student in question endangered the health and safety of others by not properly self-isolating. In a public announcement released Friday, the university said that it’s important for community members to follow public health orders on hand hygiene and physical distancing, but also to show empathy during this difficult period.

“Université Sainte-Anne wishes to remind everyone that we are experiencing a time of crisis. There are numerous stress factors, and everyone reacts differently to triggering events. We can all actively choose to be understanding and compassionate in these challenging times.”

Police in the Atlantic provinces have been handing out large fines to students who are not self-isolating properly.

Student parties make headlines

Western might be the first Canadian university to be associated with a COVID-19 outbreak this fall and U Sainte-Anne the first Canadian university to expel a student under a COVID-19 code of conduct, but if recent news coverage of student parties is any indication, they won’t be the last institution to face these challenges.

So far, local and national news outlets have reported on unsafe student parties at Trent University, Dalhousie University,the University of Victoria and Queen’s University, among others.

COVID-19 case in Carleton’s campus housing

A student living in residence at Carleton University has tested positive for COVID-19. On Saturday, the university said that this is not a case of community transmission. The student is self-isolating and the university is performing a “deep disinfection cleaning” to areas in the affected residence complex.

Students at StFX get green bracelets to mark end of isolation

St. Fracis Xavier University has devised a way to identify students who have either come to campus from within the Atlantic Bubble or who have finished their self-isolation periods. Students and staff must be wearing the bracelets in order to access academic buildings on campus.

According to the CBC, “students will be issued a green wristband once they have submitted a signed waiver, signed the university’s student community protocols, completed the isolation period and pass a general COVID-19 screening questionnaire at the time they go to get their bracelet.”

The CBC also reports that an estimated 3,200 postsecondary students have arrived in Nova Scotia and 6,000 tests have been completed. Each student from outside the Atlantic bubble is required to do three COVID tests during their 14-day quarantine.

September 11, 2020

Some preliminary enrolment numbers

As the first week of classes comes to an end at most universities in Canada today, here’s a snapshot of how fall enrolment numbers are looking so far:

  • Preliminary numbers at the University of Regina reflect a modest increase of 1.7 percent compared to this time last year (that’s 16,754 students, up from 16,468). U of R identifies COVID-19 as the reason for a slight decline in new domestic student enrolment and a 50 percent decrease in international student enrolment this fall. “These reductions were largely offset by increases in continuing students, leaving us with approximately three percent overall growth in domestic students and an approximately four percent overall decrease in international students.”
  • The University of Manitoba reports that part-time enrolment is up 18.2 percent this term, with 4,828 students registered this year, up from 4,084 in 2019. Full-time enrolment is only slightly up – by 1.4 percent (26,060 students in 2020 compared to 25,709 students in 2019). The university says undergraduate enrolment is up 4.2 percent, to 26,679 students, graduate enrolment is up by 1.1 percent, and international enrolment is up 7.5 percent (from 5,811 students in fall 2019 to 6,249 students).
  • Manitoba’s Canadian Mennonite University, one of the few universities in the country running a fall term of in-person classes, says total enrolment sits at 617 students. Enrolment (both undergraduate and graduate) is down 1.9 percent at the Shaftesbury campus. CMU is also reporting lower than usual first-year numbers – down by 20 percent – which the university attributes to a significant loss of international students. It’s worth noting that 152 students are living on campus and, though the university is offering all courses face-to-face, some eight percent of students are attending classes online.
  • Enrolment at the University of Saskatchewan is “on track to be the highest on record” for the institution, according to a report by Global News. Overall student enrolment has increased by two percent since fall 2019.
  • Mount Royal University says its enrolment is up 1.4 percent from last year. Nearly 15,000 students are pursuing undergraduate degrees so far this fall, with more registered in the university’s diploma and continuing education programs.
  • CBC has reported that Memorial University has 500 more students enrolled at the university this fall than at the start of fall 2019. The university is still projecting an $11-million loss due in large part to a decrease in international student enrolment.
  • Although Ryerson University hasn’t widely released its numbers yet, the Toronto Star reports an overall increase of four percent for undergraduate enrolment for the institution. Ryerson has, however, published a news release announcing a huge spike in enrolment at its Chang School of Continuing Education. Enrolment grew by 51 percent for fall courses, which are being delivered entirely online.
  • A Global News article reports that enrolment “appears to be up” at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. (The article also notes that the Ontario Universities Application Centre website has seen 107,001 prospective students accept offers of admission, up from 104,635 last year.)

Official enrolment numbers are typically released later in the fall.

Granting councils will accept unofficial transcripts for some fall 2020 competitions

The pandemic has created a backlog for transcript requests at several universities. With fall scholarship and fellowship competition season here, the three granting councils – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (known collectively as the “tri-council”) – will accept unofficial transcripts as part of application packages this year.

“Applicants should contact their faculty of graduate studies to determine whether an official transcript can be provided. Submission of an application will continue to serve as a formal attestation that the applicant has provided true, complete, and accurate information in the application and its related documents.”

Tri-council releases statement on ethical research involving humans (TCPS 2) during pandemic

The tri-council’s Panel on Research Ethics, the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research has published new interpretations to support researchers using the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, TCPS 2 (2018) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The “COVID-19 interpretations” clarify the additional risks that the pandemic brings to research involving human participants, how researchers should address these risks in their applications to and consent forms for ethics review boards, and what research ethics boards should consider while assessing applications during the current health crisis.

September 9, 2020

With no update posted this past Monday due to the Labour Day weekend, we’ve got a lot of COVID-related news to catch up on today.

Quebec earmarks $375M for postsecondary students

Late last month, Quebec’s minister for higher education, Danielle McCann, announced $375 million in financial support for the province’s postsecondary students. About $300 million will go to a financial aid program, which includes a one-time boost of $200 million for the 2020-21 year in recognition of the hardships posed by the pandemic. The government says the new funding envelope will help cover the cost of materials such as new technology and an internet connection for online learning. Some $75 million will be dedicated to direct support to students in the form of rapid financial aid as well as academic and psychosocial supports during the pandemic. The province estimates that these changes will make financial aid accessible to more than 20,000 new student applicants.

McMaster partners with Air Canada for study on international travellers

McMaster Health Labs, Air Canada, and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority have teamed up to study the effectiveness of various quarantine periods for travellers coming through Pearson International Airport.

“Our study will provide data to help determine if an airport-based COVID-19 surveillance program is feasible, whether self-collection of COVID-19 testing is effective, and to explore options regarding the 14-day quarantine for international travel,” said John Gilmour, MHL’s chief executive officer, in a press release. Researchers are looking for “the number and percentage of arriving international travellers who test positive for COVID-19 during the federal government’s quarantine period” with the goal of providing advice to policymakers on how to ease or adapt the current restrictions in place for international travellers.

Starting September 3, study participants arriving at Pearson’s Terminal 1 will volunteer samples before leaving the airport, and will provide two more to researchers on day seven and day 14 of their quarantine period.

The study is co-directed by Vivek Goel from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and Marek Smieja from the department of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University. In an interview with the CBC, Dr. Smieja noted that the 14-day quarantine was put into place soon after the pandemic was declared, when very little was known about COVID-19. “Today, we know an awful lot more about this disease, we have excellent lab tests to help guide us, and we think it’s a good time to ask the question: do we need a long quarantine?” he said.

(The postsecondary sector, for one, should be very interested in the results of any review of travel restrictions: international students contribute millions of dollars to postsecondary institutions and their absence on campuses this fall is widely felt.)

Student in N.S. fined for failing to self-isolate

It’s not just the federal government that has mandated quarantine periods for travellers. The Atlantic provinces require anyone entering the “Atlantic bubble” from outside of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in the region. Universities in these provinces have made it clear that students coming to campus from outside Atlantic Canada must follow this policy. And now we’re seeing the consequences for those who don’t: the RCMP has fined a university student in Antigonish, N.S., $1,000 for failing to self-isolate.

Ontario folds performance-based funding announcement into back-to-school message

The Government of Ontario officially welcomed postsecondary students back to class for the fall term and thanked postsecondary institutions for their cooperation in safety planning and in sector-wide consultations over the summer. At the end of this welcome back message, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities noted that it would be delaying plans for a performance-based funding model for two more years. The plan was initially shelved this spring due to the pandemic (see May 7 update).

“To support postsecondary excellence and accountability, Ontario remains committed to moving ahead with performance-based funding. In response to COVID-19, the government is delaying the activation of performance-based funding for up to two years to provide financial stability and predictability to Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and universities.”

Some student athletes return to training under new safety rules

The University of Guelph is one school that’s welcoming student athletes back to campus for training. However, the Gryphons varsity teams will be practicing under some different conditions this year, including outdoor-only sessions, strict limits on the number of people who can participate and less contact.

The training sessions at Guelph are all in the hopes that Ontario University Athletics and other collegiate sports leagues will reinstate some variation of their leagues this academic year. Indeed, many provincial and national collegiate sports leagues in Canada have cancelled their seasons out of respect for COVID-19 safety measures, but not all. Le Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ), has said its member institutions will likely resume local league play as of September 14, the start date set by the province. Last week, the network published a guide for managing a return to university-level game play during COVID-19 [PDF] (a second guide geared towards both colleges and universities was released simultaneously). La Tribune reports that 10 doctors helped develop the documents in line with public health policies and guidelines.

UAlberta prof offers tips for breathing easier in a face mask

Many of us have had about six months to get accustomed to wearing face masks out in public, but not all of us have taken to the new face coverings like ducks to water. Respirologist Christopher Ewing, a faculty member in the medical school at the University of Alberta, offered some tips to Folio for breathing a little easier while wearing a mask – plus, how to get your kids to keep them on!

Concordia introduces social distancing circles for outdoor spaces

Concordia University has launched a pilot project that will allow staff, faculty and students to book green space for outdoor meetings for four to 17 people. Six outdoor meeting spaces have been prepared with social distancing circles (which look suspiciously like hula hoops) to encourage appropriate physical distancing during gatherings.

Photo courtesy of Concordia University.

September 4, 2020

COVID-19 case at U of Calgary facility

The University of Calgary has confirmed a case of COVID-19 in one of its facilities. According to the U of Calgary’s COVID-19 dashboard, the case has been tied to the SMART Technologies building at the university’s research park near the main campus. Exposure would’ve occurred four to seven days ago.

CAUT tracks back-to-school plans

The Canadian Association of University Teachers is tracking fall course-delivery plans in a publicly available spreadsheet. The database lists the plans of more than 110 institutions, and includes public and private universities and colleges. In a press release, CAUT noted that 55 percent of the institutions they’re tracking will mostly deliver courses online with some in-person options, 25 percent have opted for a hybrid or blended model, 16 percent are only offering online courses and two percent are offering courses primarily in person.

Redeemer and CMU release return-to-campus frameworks

Both Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario, and Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University are both offering hybrid courses that prioritize face-to-face learning this fall. To give students and staff an overview and guidance for returning to campus, the small, faith-based institutions recently released detailed plans for the academic year.

Redeemer’s plan is founded on “Redeemer CARES,” which stands for clean, assess, respect, educate, support. It also outlines some of the safety measures the institution has adopted, including the addition of hand-washing stations around campus, a new UV air filtration system, a nurse hired to handle COVID-19 assessment and case tracking, and personal protective equipment, such as face masks and face shields, for each student and employee. A Global News report notes that nearly 360 students live in on campus in townhouse units. During the pandemic, each townhouse unit is considered a “bubble of eight.”

The CMU document stipulates that by registering for courses or agreeing to work at the university during the pandemic, students and staff automatically agree to “practice the principles, and protocols outlined in this ‘Education and Operational Framework for 2020-21.’” It outlines expectations regarding self-assessments, physical distancing, masking, hygiene, self-isolation if a case is detected, and more. The document also notes that each course has a continuity plan listed on its syllabus should a student no longer be able to attend in person, or if public health requires the university to close campus.

U of T faculty and librarians fundraise for financially vulnerable co-workers

University of Toronto faculty and librarians have raised $66,000 to help “part-time, contingent, seasonal and sub-contracted campus staff” who have been financially affected by the pandemic. Through the U of T Faculty and Librarians Solidarity Fund, employees are aiming to raise a total of $350,000 for staff who may not qualify for other aid packages or “whose hardships may have been compounded by the long-term impacts of systemic racism or sexism in society.”

“These are the people who make the university function on a day-to-day basis and facilitate campus life – they clean our buildings, make and serve food, attend to parking and make sure that everyday life on campus functions and works,” said Michelle Buckley, an associate professor in the department of human geography at U of T Scarborough and a fund co-founder. “Their work is absolutely vital to the operation of the university.”

She told U of T News that more than 120 people contributed $60,000 to the fund in its first week.

COVID testing centre opens at SMU

Saint Mary’s University in Halifax is now home to a COVID-19 testing centre. Nova Scotia Health is operating the clinic out of the university’s Homburg Centre for Health and Wellness. In a news release, the university says that it has worked closely with the health authority to “ensure that the testing centre is secure and appropriately spaced from campus activities.”

Residence move-in

Residence move-in usually makes some appearance in local news coverage each fall, but “in these unprecedented times” you can expect to see much ink and many pixels spent reporting on this fall’s return to campus housing. Media outlets in markets big and small have already produced some version of this story. Here are just a few:

  • Queen’s University is moving 400 students in at a time for a total of 2,000 this year (about half of what they’d usually house).
  • At the University of Lethbridge, 294 students will move in over the course of a week. Students are given 90 minutes to move in and are allowed one guest to help.
  • Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, is welcoming some 400 students in residence. Move-in is happening floor by floor and students will have two hours and two people to help. Residence halls each have “a designated self-isolation space in the event of a positive cases” and a specific hall has been designated a quarantine location for international students entering the country.
  • The University of Calgary’s on-campus housing is at less than half of its usual occupancy. The CBC says the university has organized a sort of drive-through setup for the 900 students moving to campus
  • Western University will see 70 percent occupancy, with 3,800 students moving to campus housing.

Something nice: Research kits for lab-based courses

Instructors for lab-based classes are getting more and more creative with their work-arounds for this school year of mostly remote learning.

The 70 students in Michael Naish’s second-year mechatronics systems engineering course at Western University will be getting custom-made robot kits as part of their course materials this January. And at the University of Guelph, some students in the department of integrative biology will be provided with field kits for sampling and testing freshwater from streams.

September 2, 2020

U Sainte-Anne to reopen today after COVID-19 case on campus deemed low risk

Université Sainte-Anne’s campus in Church Point, Nova Scotia, is set to reopen today after a student tested positive for COVID-19 this past weekend. The province specifically mentioned the university case in a statement released on August 31 alerting the public to two new cases and two probable cases of COVID-19. On September 1, the province added that the student in the U Sainte-Anne case “did not properly self-isolate” and the health authority was in the process of tracking down close contacts. (The two probable cases involved a student at Dalhousie University and a student at Acadia University. Both students received “indeterminate” test results and have been self-isolating since they arrived in the Atlantic region.)

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Robert Strang, noted in yesterday’s press release that the case at U Sainte-Anne underlines the value of the testing strategy that the province put in place on August 20 for postsecondary students coming from outside the Atlantic bubble (see our update published on August 21 for more information on the strategy). “It’s helping us detect and manage cases early,” he said. “The testing strategy does not replace the need to follow other public health measures. The combination of testing, self-isolating and digital check-ins will help to ensure the safety of all students, faculty and staff, and their neighbouring communities.”

In a statement sent out on September 1, the university said its Church Point campus had been given the green light to reopen following a determination that the student was at low risk of transmitting the disease to others.

Yukon U temporarily shuts down campus

Yukon University has closed its Ayamdigut campus in Whitehorse for 48 hours after learning from the territory’s COVID-19 compliance officers that two students in campus housing failed to self-isolate for 14 days as instructed by the government when they entered the territory. Although the risk of infection is low, the university has restricted access to the campus until Friday while contact tracing takes place.

The shut-down was announced on the first day of fall term – Yukon U’s first fall term as a university. With most of the term taking place online, the university has temporarily adapted campus spaces, including the cafeteria, to house student services.

McMaster confirms COVID-19 case

On Monday, McMaster University posted a message about a confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus. The case involves a graduate student and the university noted that “all areas where the student was on campus have been thoroughly cleaned and are open for normal operations.”

McMaster requires all faculty and staff members coming to campus to participate in an online training on COVID-19 safety and preparedness, and to complete “a COVID screening tool” any time they visit university facilities.

CanCOVID network wins millions in federal funding

CanCOVID, a transdisciplinary research and policy network co-founded by Canada’s chief science officer Mona Nemer this spring, has been awarded $1.25 million by the Government of Canada. (See the April 2 update below for more on CanCOVID.)

The network now counts more than 2,300 members – researchers, clinicians, policy advisors and others – who collaborate digitally in research and development areas related to the pandemic to advise policymakers as well as frontline workers. According to a press release from the network, this new investment will help to “establish thematic research networks, based on priorities developed in collaboration with the government” as well as the development of “partnerships with other networks such as the COVID19Resources platform and the Rapid Evidence Access Link (REAL) network, which both also originated as a COVID-19 response effort.”

The network also announced new leadership. Its secretariat will be led by academic and managing director Julia Zarb, an expert in health informatics, and scientific advisor Vivek Goel, a public health physician who recently stepped down as vice-president, research, at the University of Toronto in order to lead that institution’s pandemic response. The secretariat will be based out of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at U of T, where both work as faculty members.

Something nice: U of Guelph’s O-Week boxes

Convocation-in-a-box was the first university milestone to be made mail-friendly during the pandemic. Now its orientation’s turn. The University of Guelph has prepared Guelph O-Week boxes for all new students. They include tea, an ebook link to this year’s Gryphons Read selection (Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai) and other “U of G-themed goodies, necessities and keepsakes” that have been packaged in a keepsake box bearing the university’s official colours.

“We think students are going to love these boxes,” said Rosanna Beattie, coordinator of orientation programs. “We know this is an unusual year and while we can’t meet each student face-to-face on campus, we wanted to provide them with a tangible welcome and introduction to the Gryphon family.”

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