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COVID-19 updates for August 2020

BY UA/AU | AUG 30 2020

August 28, 2020

New measures on work permit eligibility for international students

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced new measures on Wednesday to add more flexibility to post-graduation work permit eligibility for international students beginning their programs online from abroad. Three changes are being introduced:

  • Students may now study online from abroad until April 30, 2021, with no time deducted from the length of a future post-graduation work permit, provided 50 percent of their program of study is eventually completed in Canada.
  • Students who have enrolled in a program that is between 8 and 12 months in length, with a start date from May to September 2020, will be able to complete their entire program online from abroad and still be eligible for a post-graduation work permit.
  • Students who have enrolled in a program with a start date from May to September 2020 and study online up to April 30, 2021, and who graduate from more than one eligible program of study, may be able to combine the length of their programs of study when they apply for a post-graduation work permit in the future, as long as 50 percent of their total studies are completed in Canada.

To be eligible for these measures, IRCC said students must have submitted a study permit application before starting a program of study in the spring, summer or fall 2020 semester, or the January 2021 semester. “All students must eventually be approved for a study permit,” it stated, adding that the easing of COVID-19 related restrictions will depend on the progress made in Canada and around the world in containing the spread of the coronavirus.

The website The Pie News notes that IRCC has introduced a range of measures in recent months aimed at supporting international students affected by the pandemic, from fast-track processing and a temporary two-stage process to accepting incomplete applications for study permits and post-graduation work permits.

U of Ottawa to open on-campus COVID-19 testing centre

The University of Ottawa announced yesterday that it will be the first university in Ontario to open its own on-campus COVID-19 assessment centre. For now, the centre will only be open to students, staff and faculty members of the university. “Having an on-campus testing facility will support people working and learning on campus and will ensure they have all the tools and resources they need to stay safe,” says University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont.

The university says it expects to welcome back in September about two-thirds of its researchers, approximately 5,000 students who are enrolled in courses that have in-person learning requirements, as well as a small number of faculty members and staff. “Once the centre is up and running at full capacity, the hope is that the uOttawa assessment centre will also help lighten the load carried by other testing facilities in the city,” says Dr. Frémont.

The testing centre is a collaboration between the university and The Ottawa Hospital. It is projected to open in early September and will remain open for six months, with a possible extension depending on community need.

Don’t party, students are warned

Meanwhile, the mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, is urging university students to be “responsible and thoughtful” as they return to the city for the new academic year by avoiding large social gatherings that could act as a “petri dish” to spread COVID-19. “This is not the year to have keg parties with 100 of your closest friends,” said Mr. Watson in an interview with CTV News.

That message was echoed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Referencing the situation in the U.S., where large off-campus gatherings have led to subsequent COVID-19 outbreaks at numerous colleges and universities, he called it a “terrible example” for students to follow. He added, “you can party after,” once the pandemic is ended.

August 26, 2020

First COVID-19 case at Mount Allison

Mount Allison University announced yesterday on Facebook that it was informed by New Brunswick Public Health of “a positive case for COVID-19 in our campus community.” There was no mention of whether the individual is a student; the public health department says simply that the case “is travel-related and the individual has been in self-isolation since their arrival in New Brunswick.” Public health says it believes the case poses a low risk to the campus community. The university says no other details will be released at this time “to respect confidentiality.”

Like most universities, Mount Allison is offering a combination of online and in-person classes for the upcoming academic year. It has organized a phased three-week move-in period for students from August 14 to September 7. All students travelling from outside of the four Atlantic provinces must self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. The university has prepared a 30-page COVID-19 guide for students explaining in detail its preparations for the new academic year.

Meanwhile, the situation worsens in the U.S.

As the start of the fall term approaches in Canada, university administrators here must be keeping a wary eye on the deteriorating situation south of the border. According to the New York Times, there have been at least 26,000 cases of COVID-19 at more than 750 U.S. colleges and universities since the start of the pandemic. Most of these cases have occurred since the beginning of August as students begin to return to campuses.

Among the worst hit is the University of Alabama system, which has recorded 566 positive cases since August 19, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. The university’s student newspaper, the Crimson White, reports on the chaos this is creating as some students are forced to leave their dorms so that the rooms can be converted into COVID-19 isolation facilities. Iowa State University has reported 130 cases in the week since courses started. The University of Missouri currently has 159 active cases since August 19. Auburn University has seen over 200 cases this week alone. The University of Miami reported 141 after the first week of class, and the University of Kentucky has seen 250 cases so far. (The latter three were included in this report from Inside Higher Ed.) The list goes on and on …

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made national headlines when it announced on August 17, just days after in-person classes began, that it would revert to fully online instruction for undergraduates after 177 coronavirus cases were confirmed. The university has now seen at least 635 positive cases since August 10, according to its dashboard, including a cluster of 152 cases in a single residence. On August 18, Notre Dame University followed UNC’s lead and cancelled in-person instruction for at least two weeks to slow the spread of the disease. The university currently reports 471 positive cases since August 3.

Something nice: Trent U provides 500 laptops to students

Trent University announced last Friday that it will be providing 500 Chromebooks to students who may not otherwise have the financial or technological resources to fully participate in remote learning this fall. The university has raised $270,000 from donors for what it’s calling the Remote Learning Initiative. Speaking to Global News, Sherry Booth, director of philanthropy at Trent, said “not having the correct technology can directly translate to not having access to a quality education.” She also said the Trent program is unique because, unlike similar initiatives where institutions loan laptops to students, the Chromebooks will be a permanent gift.

August 21, 2020

International students face an uncertain fall term

With the new academic year fast approaching, “Canadian colleges and universities have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to find a path forward for international students seeking to study here,” writes Pierre Cyr, vice-president of public affairs at the communications firm FleishmanHillard HighRoad, in an op-ed published August 19 in The Hill Times (subscription required). But, he warns, changes in policy by the federal government have created much ambiguity, with the result that international students “still do not know if they can come to Canada in a couple of weeks to start their studies.”

The federal government, he explains, had originally left it to the provinces and territories to determine whether each college and university had a sufficient plan in place to quarantine and support arriving students. However, the government has since changed its approach and is now asking postsecondary institutions to submit their plans for approval by local health authorities, provincial public health officers, Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. “Anybody who understands the pace of government knows that it will take nothing short of a miracle for plans to be approved in time for September,” he writes. “In addition, once successful in navigating this complexity, colleges and universities are still uncertain as to how the approval from the federal government will be provided.”

Noting that international students contributed $22 billion last year to the Canadian economy, Mr. Cyr says that if this issue is not resolved urgently, “thousands of layoffs will soon occur at Canadian colleges and universities, and the impacts on and off campuses throughout the country will be felt for decades to come.”

Joseph Wong, University of Toronto’s interim vice-president, international, hints at a further source of ambiguity for international students in a Q&A posted on the university’s website. The federal government requires that students have a “non-discretionary reason” to enter the country, and Dr. Wong is asked, how is this determined? He replies: “Right now, it’s going to come down to Canada Border Services agents to decide” (emphasis added). To minimize the possibility of a student being turned away, he says U of T is providing letters for international students that specify that they do have a non-discretionary reason to be in Canada, i.e., studying or conducting research in person on campus. “Students should contact their registrar to obtain a personalized letter of support and make sure they have this letter, as well as a confirmation of enrolment, with them when they arrive at the border,” he says.

Addressing the need for international students to self-isolate for 14 days upon their arrival, Dr. Wong says they must have a plan ready before they arrive. This should be done through the ArriveCAN app, he says, which asks where the student is going to stay, how they’re going to get there, how they will isolate, who’s going to get their food, and so on. The university is offering a quarantine accommodation plan to newly arriving international students, which includes transportation from the airport, a private room, three meals a day and other supports. International students make up nearly a quarter of the student population at U of T.

New Institute for Pandemics

Speaking of U of T, the university announced on Wednesday that it is launching a new Institute for Pandemics in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The institute’s aim is “to help the world prepare better, fight smarter and recover faster from crises caused by communicable diseases.” The founding director of the institute is the school’s dean, Steini Brown. The institute is being launched with a $1-million gift from the Toronto-based Vohra Miller Foundation.

Testing required for students entering Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil announced yesterday that postsecondary students entering the province from outside Atlantic Canada will not only be required to self-isolate for 14 days but will also need to get tested for the coronavirus. Students will be tested at three different times during their 14-day isolation period. They cannot attend in-person classes until their testing and self-isolation are complete and they have received negative test results. The order is effective immediately, and includes students who have already arrived and are currently self-isolating. “This is an important moment in our province,” said Mr. McNeil, as quoted by the CBC. “We have to be realistic. COVID is not going away. But our hope is that our isolation plan and our testing strategy will [prevent] a major spike in cases.”

Academic staff overworked and stressed out

A survey conducted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has found that the pandemic has significantly increased the workload and stress levels of academic staff across the country. CAUT surveyed 4,300 academic staff from universities and colleges in all provinces between May 13 and June 12. The results were released on Thursday.

Among the key findings, a majority of academic staff report they are working more than before the COVID-19 pandemic, with almost one-third working an additional 10 hours or more per week; 84 percent say they are experiencing somewhat or much higher stress levels due to the pandemic, caused by the need to balance work and dependent care, the challenges with teaching and research, and job insecurity; 68 percent say they are worried about the challenges of remote teaching; and two-thirds indicate they are doing less research or none at all due to the inability to attend conferences, dependent care responsibilities, inability to access labs or offices, not being able to conduct in-person research, and increased teaching demands.

“It is not clear how the concerns about remote teaching, research and jobs at universities and colleges are going to be addressed without more government and institutional support for postsecondary education,” said CAUT president Brenda Austin-Smith.

August 19, 2020

Universities’ fall plans, by the numbers

The team at Canadian education startup CourseCompare.ca has spent the last month tracking 150 colleges and universities across the country to determine what the student experience will look like on campus and online for this coming fall. All the details are compiled here, including a series of handy, searchable interactive tables. Among the highlights: 54 percent of postsecondary schools in the country will deliver programs online, 40 percent will be running a hybrid model (online and in-person delivery), and about four percent are offering the majority of courses in person – largely in areas where infection rates have been low and where class sizes are typically small, with sizeable facilities to accommodate social distancing.

“We’ll continue to update this data on an ongoing basis, including best practices emerging around safety and student support at schools across Canada. This includes monitoring the role technology will play in facilitating a safe and successful fall semester for students,” says CourseCompare founder Robert Furtado in an email to University Affairs. A former college instructor, Mr. Furtado authored an op-ed for University Affairs about the “loneliness of the online learner” published in March – ironically, just before the pandemic lockdown.

The opening of university residences

CourseCompare notes that on-campus housing, where available, will largely be reduced to students living solo in dorm rooms. Nevertheless, Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, worries about the public health challenges as students begin to congregate in campus residences. “As much as universities are going to have rules, there’s going to be an element of wanting to socialize and interact with people,” she told CBC. “Striking that balance may be challenging.”

A clusterf*ck in the U.S.

Whatever Canadian universities’ plans are for the fall term, they will want to avoid the dire situation unfolding at some campuses south of the border, where major outbreaks of COVID-19 are occurring. The poster child for pandemic pandemonium is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which announced on Monday that, just days into the fall term, it has reversed course from its commitment to in-person instruction, and has told all undergraduate students to go home (including moving out of campus dorms) and prepare for online instruction starting today. According to Inside Higher Ed, between Aug. 10 and 16, 130 students at Chapel Hill tested positive for the coronavirus, along with five employees. “We all saw this coming,” said the headline of the online edition of the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, while the print edition declared indelicately, “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.”

Dozens of other U.S. colleges have announced outbreaks over the past several days. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana just disclosed 80 new COVID-19 cases on campus, bringing the total to 147 cases since August 3; Bethel College in Kansas has “approximately 50” cases, including 43 students and seven employees; and the University of Texas at Austin has the distinction of being the leader among U.S. colleges in COVID-19 cases, hitting a cumulative total of 479 as of August 13 (291 students and 188 faculty and staff). Of note, UNC Chapel Hill,  UT Austin and Notre Dame are all posting their pandemic data on special COVID-19 dashboards – exemplars of transparent data reporting. The University of Calgary is also maintaining a COVID-19 dashboard, but there are currently no recent cases to report.

Many of the clusters in the U.S. are linked to large parties off-campus, as well as to fraternities and sororities – including at Oklahoma State University, where 23 members of a sorority house tested positive this past weekend. Last month, 45 coronavirus cases at the University of Southern California were linked to fraternities, and more than 100 students living in fraternity houses near the University of Washington campus tested positive for COVID-19.

August 14, 2020

York preps for online winter term 

The Senate Executive Committee at York University has approved the extension of fall remote learning plans into the winter 2021 termThis means the same fundamental approach to course delivery in the fall will also apply for the Winter 2021 term. The guidelines are premised on preparing for online/remote delivery of both undergraduate and graduate courses,” explained Lisa Philipps, provost and vice-president, academic, in an update to the community.  

Alberta institutions collaborate on OER 

Seven higher education institutions in Alberta have jointly created Open Education Albertaa free publishing service for open educational resources available to all postsecondary instructors in the province. “Faculty [members] are already looking at ways to revisit how they’re going to deliver their courses for the fall, and OERs might solve some of the problems that they’re encountering in terms of student access to learning materials,” said Cari Merkley, a librarian at Mount Royal University and co-lead on the project.  

Concordia sends mini lab kits to chem students at home 

Chemistry professors at Concordia University are sending students in this fall’s General Chemistry 1 class their very own mini lab kits. About 600 kits will be distributed so students in the entry-level course can get hands-on experience while following the class lectures online at homeThe kits include lab-grade glassware (beakers, flasksgraduated cylinders), a weighing balance and a burette. The instructors have prepared experiments for this fall’s courses that will make use of ingredients you’d find easily enough at home or in a grocery store, such as vinegar, saltrubbing alcohol, rice and paper clips. Not only does this make the assignments easy and safe to do at home, it reinforces for students that chemistry occurs everywhere – not just in a lab.  

Free masks at U of T 

Following a similar announcement from Western University, the University of Toronto has said it will distribute 250,000 non-medical masks to students, staff, faculty and librarians on campus. Each person will get two reusable U of T-branded polyester masks. The university explained that these are to supplement the face coverings that people were already bringing to campus on their own.  

Research round-up 

Here’s a quick sketch of some interesting COVID-related research that’s come out of Canadian universities the past few weeks 

August 11, 2020

Report details the impact of COVID-19 on graduate students 

In late April, the Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN) launched a survey to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting graduate students across Canada. The results of that survey are now in and are contained in a new report released by the TSPN on MondayThe Early Impacts of COVID-19 on Graduate Students Across CanadaThe report is based on 1,431 responses gathered between April 22 and May 31The survey included questions relating to working from home, health and wellness, teaching and course requirements, research, funding, and the experiences of graduate students during COVID-19. 

Among the key findings:  

  • Graduate students are increasingly concerned about their possible sources of income and ongoing expenses, including tuition fees, stipends and assistantships. 
  • Around three-quarters of graduate students reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their ability to conduct research due to institutional closures.  
  • More than a quarter (26 percent) of graduate students are now considering taking a longterm leave of absence due to health and wellness concerns, compared to 10 percent pre-pandemic. Graduate students increasingly reported experiencing anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, loneliness, or being overwhelmed compared to before COVID-19. 
  • Over half of international students were worried about completing their degree requirements before the expiration of their study permit. 
  • Of those planning to complete degree requirements by August 2020 (n=367), half report being unable or uncertain about their ability to graduate as a result of COVID-19. 

The report includes numerous recommendations (additional details regarding each recommendation are available on page 42 of the full report). They include: 

  • Establish clear and direct lines of communication between graduate students, supervisors, departments and institutions.  
  • Reduce the financial burden faced by graduate students, and introduce flexibility into degree completion times. 
  • Improve existing health and wellness support systems available at institutions. 
  • Provide extensions to study and work permits for international students. 
  • Mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of graduate students to conduct research. 
  • Improve the quality of virtual teaching and coursework by establishing clear expectations, introducing relevant pedagogical training and increasing the flexibility of course structures. 
  • Advocate for increased support for graduate students to decision-makers within institutions, and in various levels of government. 

Similar to other sectors, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to temporary closures of institutions and research spaces, forcing graduate students to put their studies on hold, which, in many cases, has caused considerable delays in degree completion, and the abandonment of ongoing coursework, research, or other academic responsibilities,” reads the reportWhile some aspects of graduate studies can be completed remotely, many graduate students remain trapped in a limbo, facing an uncertain future. 

Tuition fight heats up 

Students have been calling for reduced tuition fees for months, but as we quickly approach the fall term and students start registering for courses, there is renewed attention to calls for lowered fees at institutions that will run online courses only. Appeals are being made in the media by international students at Lakehead Universitywhere their tuition will increase by five to six percentStudents in New Brunswick have concerns about the level of food service they’ll be paying for through dining fees 

A professor at the University of British Columbia has even jumped in, suggesting that lowered tuition fees will allow students more time to study and flourish and less time taking on debt or seeking out paid work. But rather than simply appeal to individual institutions, she suggests the solution could come from more government funding. “It doesn’t have to be like this. Canada could make quite different choices to support students’ postsecondary education. In the short term, it would mean additional government funding to allow universities to reduce tuition fees, as COVID-19 changes the student experience. In the longer term, it means reopening discussion about university funding.” 

In this article by the CBC, one Ryerson student said she’s feeling “burnt out” after months of pushing for lowered tuition, and that she anticipates these protests to waver as student priorities shift with the end of summer. It’s worth noting that several universities and student unions have announced modest decreases to student fees this fall (see, for example, the University of Regina and Brock University). And recently, the University of Guelph promoted several new supports for international students – tuition credits, bursaries, scholarships and online programming are among them (it’s hard to make the argument that you’re paying for services you can’t access when the institution shows that it’s actually doubling-down on assistance). 

August 5, 2020

B.C. releases reopening guidelines for province’s postsecondary institutions 

Last week, British Columbia released “Go Forward,” the official guidelines for the province’s postsecondary institutions. The document provides the basic steps that institutions should follow to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreak on campus. Topics addressed include transportation, cleaning as well as keeping specific communities and spaces safe. 

USherbrooke students petition for pass/fail grades this summer 

The student union at the University of Sherbrooke has published a petition asking administration to return to a mixed grading model in which students can opt for a pass/fail instead of the traditional grading scale for the summer term. The pass/fail option was introduced at the university for the winter term to accommodate significant course disruptions due to the pandemic. The university returned to its standard grading scale for the summer term. The student union says that decision was unfair since the challenges that affected the winter term – psychological distress, internet connectivity issues, limited access to research resources and faculty members, for example – continue to impact students’ performance. In an interview with Radio-Canada, the union reported that more than half of all students registered in summer courses have signed the petition.  

Christine Hudonthe university’s vice-rectrice (vice-president), academic, explained that the institution reverted to its standard grading style because instructors had time to prepare for the online summer term and they were not forced to rapidly adapt their courses as they had been during the winter term. 

The university is offering a hybrid course model for the fall term, with many in-person classes expected to be available to students.  

International students 

Last month, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada updated its guidance and policy page for study permits during the pandemic. One change intended to help international students starting a program in Canada this fall is a temporary two-stage assessment process for study permit applications. “This temporary two-stage assessment process for study permit applications intends to provide a certain degree of reassurance to international students who cannot provide all of the required documents or information needed to finalize the assessment of their study permit application.” To be eligible for this process, applicants must have sent in a new study permit application electronically on or before September 15, 2020, and their program of study must begin in the fall 2020 at the latest. The site includes information about distance-learning programs, cancelled programs, deferred acceptance, and more.  

The PIE News has an overview of IRCC’s back-and-forth on travel exemptions for students, which has left many international students confused and anxious about studying remotely in the coming school year: “The changes have caused great concern amongst international students, who say that studying in their home country is not a feasible option because of time differences and because online study does not provide good value for money.” 

Meanwhile, CTV News reports that Canada has seemingly relaxed border bans for students coming to Canada from the United States 

And the CBC is reporting on efforts by language schools to bring students to Canada: “The Study Safe Corridor initiative, which is awaiting approval from the federal government, would see Air Canada provide charter flights to bring COVID-screened students from countries such as Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Brazil. number of Canadian hotels have agreed to offer ‘full-service quarantine packages’ for the students during their 14-day isolation period. A health insurance partner is involved in the plan as well.” 

Mt. AllisonStFX formally partner with student unions to bring students back to campus 

Two universities on Canada’s east coast recently announced new partnerships with their student unions in order to ease the return to campus.  

Mount Allison University has partnered with the Mount Allison Students’ Union and the Town of Sackville, New Brunswick, to form the MtA Sackville Bubble initiative.” The partnership is based on a voluntary “community commitment” that “encourages students, faculty, staff, businesses, landlords, and all residents to do their part to protect everyone in the bubble by following Public Health directives” on and off campus, and to stay informed about the pandemic. Part of the initiative is MtA Sackville Bubble Welcome Centre for new and returning students at a local community centre during the university’s move-in period from August 14 to September 7. The centre will provide a one-stop hub for students to collect their identification, welcome packages, and additional public health information from the town, the student union and the university. In preparation for a mixed model fall term, the university has also published its back-to-campus plans and an updated student code of conduct.  

At St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, university president Andy Hakin and union president Sarah Elliott participated in a virtual signing ceremony yesterday to finalize a memorandum of understanding between administration and the student group. The university has decided to continue requiring students to sign a “COVID-19 waiver” (see the update published July 31 for more on that) and the MOU goes some way to smooth over that controversy by formalizing student support for the institution’s back-to-campus plans and the responsibilities on both sides. Officially, the purpose of the MOU is to outline “the shared principles and actions” both groups will take “concerning our shared commitment to providing a safe and healthy learning environment specifically relating to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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