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COVID-19: updates for Canada’s universities

We are publishing regular updates on the situation facing Canada’s universities with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.

BY UA/AU | MAR 03 2021

Editor’s note: please check back regularly for more updates.

March 3, 2021

COVID cases on campus

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

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

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

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

Vaccine clinics come to campus

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

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

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

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

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

Fall plans

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

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

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

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

March 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial relaxes some research restrictions

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

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

February 24, 2021

More universities announce fall plans

McGill University will return to on-campus teaching this fall. In a statement posted to its website yesterday, the university said that while some courses will continue to use components of online teaching, “students and teaching staff should plan for a return to more regular rhythms of on-campus academic activity by September.” The university will open campus residences and all eligible first-year students will be guaranteed accommodations. “We will likewise continue to develop plans for a progressive return to on-campus work for administrative and support staff, with the goal of achieving a regular presence by September 2021.”

At nearby Concordia University, spring and summer sessions will continue online, and it’s planning for an announcement about fall term in May. At the moment, the university is considering a blended learning approach.

The University of Alberta aims to “welcome a significantly increased number of our university community members back to our campuses this autumn” by relying predominantly on a blended model. The university will follow the most recent updated provincial health orders to determine class sizes. In recognition that these orders will continue to change as the province continues its vaccine rollout and infection rates fluctuate, U of A has pushed its fall registration period to May in the hopes that course schedules and formats will be finalized by late April.

In New Brunswick, St. Thomas University is planning a blended model of online and in-person learning for fall 2021. It will make a final announcement between May and June. In an article published by The Aquinian, STU’s student press, the university noted that it has spent $600,000 on remote-learning technologies that allow the institution to keep its options open.

Feds fund COVID-19 research in prison populations

The federal government has pledged nearly $1.2 million to help fund four studies of incarcerated peoples and correctional service employees in Canada and their rates of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The studies are funded through the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and involve federal institutions across the country as well as prisons in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Quebec. In a press release, Theresa Tam said “COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities have significant impacts on incarcerated individuals and staff. These studies will help us develop more effective strategies to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus within these facilities.”

Study participation is voluntary, and participants will be able to access confidential serological test results. Researchers will test participants several times over the course of the study period. “Understanding how antibody levels change over time is a first step to understanding the risk of re-infection,” said Correctional Service Canada study lead researcher Michael Martin, who is also acting director of epidemiology.

The provincial component of the studies will be particularly significant to prevention and treatment plans. “Daily movement of staff in and out of correctional facilities can introduce SARS-CoV-2 infection inside, and contribute to transmission outside,” said Nadine Kronfli from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, principal investigator of the Quebec provincial prisons study. “It is important for us to focus on both populations to inform public health policy recommendations.”

N.B. universities call on province for emergency support

The University of New Brunswick, St. Thomas University, Université de Moncton and Mount Allison University have asked the province for $10.6 million over and above the funding the province typically provides to postsecondary institutions. The request comes as these institutions claim enrolment losses due to the pandemic. When asked about the request on a CBC Radio panel, Trevor Holder, New Brunswick’s minister of postsecondary education and training, said that he’s “not in a position today to say one way or the other whether I have $10 million to give the universities.” He added that the request would be considered just as any other budget ask from any sector. “The whole world’s in an emergency right now,” Mr. Holder said. “We’re all facing challenges with COVID and the government of New Brunswick is no different.”

Ontario Tech U jointly hosts COVID clinic

Ontario Tech University has partnered with Durham College, the Regional Municipality of Durham and Durham Region Public Health to host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. The clinic will operate out of the Campus Ice Centre, which is located at Ontario Tech U and Durham College.

February 22, 2021

B.C. allows postsecondary institutions to run COVID-related deficits

Earlier this month, the Government of British Columbia said several postsecondary institutions would be exempted from the province’s balanced-budget rule. Twenty of the province’s colleges and universities are facing deficits for this academic year, and 17 are also projecting losses for next year. The deficits total $178.9 million for 2020-21. For 2021-22, the total is $75.2 million in deficit financing, reports Victoria News. Postsecondary institutions are seeing a decline in revenue that can be directly tied to the pandemic – with campuses closed and international travel restricted, there has been a loss of income from ancillary services and international student fees, even as the costs for health and safety planning and online learning technologies rise. 

B.C. partners with research coalition for data on COVID in rural areas

In another announcement from the province last week, B.C.’s Ministry of Health has funded a number of COVID-related research projects through the Interior University Research Coalition.

A total funding envelope of $150,000 will support five projects being carried out collaboratively by researchers at Thompson Rivers University, the University of British Columbia Okanagan and the University of Northern British Columbia. According to the UBC Okanagan news site, the projects being funded will cover a range of areas, “from identifying the effects of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of people living in rural communities to developing telehealth programs that will engage older adults outside urban centres. Other projects include a focus on improving the lifespan of N95 masks, as well building a better understanding of whether new technologies are improving the resiliency of rural health-care practitioners.”

In an interview with the CBC, Kathy Lewis, UNBC’s acting vice-president of research, said that these institutions are perfectly situated to be advising the province on health policy and program development. “Our researchers live amongst everybody else [in the same region]. They do have a better understanding because they have the experience,” she said. She also noted that the coalition expects to make some research findings available within the year.

A full list of the funded projects, and the researchers leading them, has been posted to the UNBC website. 

Universities supporting COVID-19 projects in Indigenous communities

Researchers at the University of Manitoba have developed a mobile app that enables Indigenous communities a hub for maintaining health-related information.

“The COVID-19 Indigenous app (available on iOS and Android) has been designed to be easily adapted to the diverse needs and priorities of individual communities while adhering to the principles of data sovereignty and community ownership, control, access and possession of information. No one outside of any given community will have access to these data without their express permission.”

The app was developed to be used by health officers in and community leaders as they roll out their COVID-19 response plans. It was funded through a COVID Rapid Response grant offered by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

At the University of Saskatchewan, researchers are working with local Indigenous communities and the City of Saskatoon to collect and analyze wastewater for the presence of COVID-19. A team at U of S has received $137,392 from the Public Health Agency of Canada for a six-month COVID-19 wastewater surveillance project located in Saskatoon and at five First Nations communities in the province. The goal is to detect early signs of an outbreak.

Kerry McPhedran, an engineering researcher with the project, noted that the team’s approach differs from some other wastewater surveillance because it “can detect the virus from the feces of both symptomatic and asymptomatic people. Identifying the presence of asymptomatic cases is very useful since many people without symptoms are not tested for the virus.

The researchers have partnered with the Indigenous Technical Services Co-operative, which includes five First Nations Tribal Councils (Agency Chiefs Tribal Council, File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, Saskatoon Tribal Council, Touchwood Agency Tribal Council, and Yorkton Tribal Council).

Queen’s defers student centre reno, suspends fee increase – as students across Canada protest higher-ed

Queen’s University has decided to delay the renovation of its student centre for a year, partly due to challenges posed by the pandemic. The deferral allows the institution to also suspend a planned increase to a building fee it has been charging undergraduate students that funds the construction. Student will ultimately pay for $50.5 million of the $62.3-million project.

In a press release, Alma Mater Society president Jared den Otter said that his committee agreed to the delay due in part to financial concerns raised by students. “Many students were concerned about an increase in fees being introduced in such a period of uncertainty,” he said. “Deferring the introduction of additional fees until September 2022, and reducing overall risks to the project, is welcome news.”

Restoration of the John Deutsch University Centre is now slated to start in May 2022. The fee increase will come into effect in September 2022.

While students at Queen’s are getting a small and temporary financial reprieve, others at institutions around the country are making their financial frustrations known. An article published by the Globe and Mail details some of the pushback that students have raised against tuition and fee increases, as well as what they see as inconsistent and ineffective teaching formats, during the pandemic. The story mentions the “Don’t Freeze our Future” protest that students took to Alberta’s legislature, protests against online proctoring services, and a number of petitions that have circulated among various student bodies demanding tuition cuts.

More tales of partying students have officials worried in lead-up to St. Pat’s

Over the weekend, RCMP on campus at the University of British Columbia issued several tickets to students at social gatherings that contravened COVID-19 health orders. The police force says four fines totalled $5,000.

Meanwhile, officials in the Kitchener-Waterloo region – home to the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University – are raising the alarm about annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. According to the CBC, thousands of people attend informal festivities on Ezra Avenue near the U of Waterloo campus. The party attracted 33,000 revellers in 2019, though no crowds were reported on St. Patrick’s Day last year, which coincided with the first COVID-19 lockdown in Ontario. Still, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky is keeping an eye on March 17, especially in light of a party-related outbreak that occurred at nearby University of Guelph last month. The city has continued to work with U of Waterloo and emergency services to plan for any possibility.

Laurier to resume some in-person operations today

With Ontario’s stay-at-home restrictions relaxed in many regions of the province, Wilfrid Laurier University will resume some on-campus business as of February 22. With reading week over, some courses will return to the classroom, and students will now be able to book a limited number of study spaces on campus. Dining and athletic facilities will also reopen.

February 17, 2021

USask-developed COVID vaccine starts human trials in Halifax

Researchers have begun human trials for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan. Volunteers received an initial dose of COVAC-2 last week through the Canadian Center for Vaccinology in Halifax. The center says the placebo-controlled study will administer two doses to each volunteer, 28 days apart.

According to a CBC report, COVAC-2 is the first of two subunit vaccines by VIDO to begin clinical testing. “Subunit vaccines contain purified viral proteins that are not infectious, and employ technology already used in vaccines for hepatitis, diphtheria and whooping cough,” the broadcaster explains.

Researchers to study student transmission of COVID at Queen’s

Researchers at Queen’s University are looking at the student population’s rate of transmission and immunity to the coronavirus causing COVID-19. The team is recruiting participants among the university’s health sciences students who are attending classes in person. The project aims to test 500 asymptomatic students for COVID-19 and COVID-19 antibodies. Participants will provide three samples over eight months.

Principal investigator Anne Ellis says the project has two primary goals: “First, we want to identify carriers of the virus with no symptoms to determine the prevalence of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection among these students. Second, we will evaluate antibody levels for any change from negative to positive or vice versa over the eight-month period to see whether it can be linked to immunity.”

The researchers will also use questionnaires to evaluate changes to students’ mental health as they proceed through the study.

Feds expand post-graduate work permit to students completing programs online

Last week, the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced changes to a work permit program for international students who graduate from Canadian postsecondary institutions. The new rules will extend Post-Graduate Work Permit eligibility to international students who complete their full postsecondary program online. The federal government issued a press release about the changes it’s made to the PGWP program:

“With the prospect of many international students continuing online learning from abroad for several more months, temporary changes to the [Post-Graduate Work Permit] Program put in place earlier in the pandemic are being extended and expanded. These measures will assist international students by ensuring that studies completed outside Canada will count towards a future PGWP, and by allowing international students to complete their entire program online from abroad and still be eligible for a PGWP.”

Last year, the government had expanded work-permit criteria to accommodate online learners during the pandemic on a temporary basis. The PGWP program previously required international students to have some degree of in-person learning experience in Canada.

February 10, 2021

Universities encourage students to stay put over reading week ahead of gradual return to in-person instruction

It’s winter reading week season once again. But this year, universities are asking students to stay put to help lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 throughout their communities.

The University of Guelph is asking students living on campus to stay in residence over the break. Anyone living in residence who travels over the week will be required to report their departure and return dates to housing staff and self-isolate for two weeks upon their return. Students who feel sick while outside residence are also asked not to return to residence until after a two-week isolation period elsewhere. U of G has been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in student housing since January 21. As of yesterday, the university reported a total of 67 cases related to the outbreak, with 62 of those cases now resolved.

Meanwhile, the University of Waterloo and Queen’s University are both reminding students and staff that various levels of government are strongly advising against non-essential travel. While post-travel isolation is mandatory at U of G, it’s highly recommended at U of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. The latter has also asked students who will be travelling to consider limiting their contacts for 10 to 14 days before leaving campus.

In Nova Scotia, chief medical officer of health Robert Stang has made a similar plea to university students. “If you’re considering travel plans, I ask that you stay in the province during this time,” he said during a briefing last Friday. Anyone who travels outside of the province must quarantine for two weeks once they’ve returned. (Yesterday, N.S. extended this mandatory order to those travelling from Newfoundland and Labrador, a province that was previously exempt from quarantine.)

Several Ontario universities are also asking students to limit their travel to ensure that the institutions can move forward with plans to offer some in-person learning at the end of the month. With the province-wide lockdown scheduled to end in many regions by next week, several universities, such as U of Waterloo and Western University, are preparing to resume a small number of face-to-face teaching and learning activities the week of February 22.

A return to residence at Western as UBC launches rapid-testing pilot in campus housing

At the end of the fall term, Western University shut down residence buildings and delayed residence move-in for the winter term to February. Students will return to campus housing this week with scheduled move-in times to allow the university to minimize the number of people in campus housing. Ahead of move-in, Western has informed residents that the expectations around health and safety measures will be much higher this term.

The Western Gazette reports that director of housing Melissa White has strongly encouraged students to get tested for COVID-19 at a campus clinic before moving in. Students who opt to be tested have to self-isolate for 24 hours in their rooms and must wear a wristband until February 22. “Students returning to residence will be coming from all corners of the province and country, which all have varying rates of [COVID-19] prevalence,” she said. “[The] testing will provide you a sense of security that you have not been infected while you were away and also to your fellow students a sense of safety.”

St. Francis Xavier University ran a wristeband program at the start of the fall term. Green wristbands signaled that a person coming from outside the Atlantic Bubble had finished their self-isolation period and they’d agreed to follow the university’s student community protocols. St. FX said the program, which ended on October 1, was a “resounding success with nearly 100 percent compliance!”

On the other side of the country, the University of British Columbia has started a pilot project to offer rapid COVID-19 testing to students living on campus. The tests are being administered by nursing students under the supervision of a nurse-instructor, and are available to any student or staff member who lives and works in first-year residence buildings. To encourage participation, the university is offering incentives like prizes and free food. Participants who test positive will be provided with free campus accommodations for self-isolation.

The trial is part of a study looking at COVID-mitigation strategies among young people living in communal housing and participants will be asked to get tested one to three times each week until April 8. Researchers expect the UBC testing clinic will be able to handle 222 tests a day.

Memorial changes course as COVID cases rise in NL

Memorial University has reversed course on its full return to in-person work as Newfoundland and Labrador faces a rising COVID case count. In a message posted online yesterday, the university said it would be implementing a “circuit breaker” approach to help slow the spread of the virus around St. John’s.

“Memorial is transitioning to a fully remote teaching, learning and work environment at the St. John’s, Signal Hill and Marine Institute campuses. This change is in effect from Feb. 10-23. The university will continue to monitor the situation and will communicate any changes to this plan in advance.”

Most staff have been asked to work remotely, if possible. Some essential employees may continue to work on campus with prior approval, and faculty members can still access their campus offices. The university clarified that research activities will only be permitted to continue after they’ve been approved under the processes set out by the COVID-19 Research Working Group.

Fall brings return to campus at U of Lethbridge

The University of Lethbridge is planning “a significant return to campus” for fall 2021. The Alberta university announced its plans yesterday, with president Mike Mahon praising the community for its patience and flexibility.

“We acknowledge the past year has been tough on our campus community. I am so proud of the resiliency our community has shown during this time and excited about the prospect of seeing the lively, energetic campus atmosphere we’ve all missed so much. It will be great for our students to begin to once again experience the social and academic benefits a more traditional in-person setting offers.”

The group tasked with planning the return to the classroom will also be looking into increasing the number of face-to-face and blended “labs, seminars, student services, work-integrated learning opportunities and on-campus events.”

The summer term will largely take place online as previously planned.

February 8, 2021


Quebec’s gradual return to campus starts today

Quebec has given postsecondary institutions the green light to reopen campuses. The province announced last week that universities and CEGEPs could gradually return to in-person instruction one day a week, starting today. The sector’s reaction to the decision has been mixed. Several people have been critical about the late notice given by the province, the pressure that this puts on instructors to quickly pivot teaching modalities and manage classroom sizes – all while new variants of the coronavirus sweep the country. Still others, particularly students, are happy for the opportunity to break the isolation that many have felt throughout this socially distant year.

In a press conference, Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann said that student mental health was a primary factor in the province’s decision. “What we want here is to break isolation that several students say they are suffering from. We’re looking for a balance between the protection of physical health and maintaining good mental health for the student population,” she said. Ms. McCann added that this should not be seen as a return to normal. “It’s not a presence on campus like we saw during normal times – it’s a first step.”

The number of students permitted in class varies depending on the region and the public health advisories in that area. Classes in red zones, for example, will be capped at 50 percent capacity. The province requires that physical distancing measures be respected both in and out of class, and that students and staff wear government-issued face masks at all times.

Pandemic spurs interest in nursing programs

The spotlight that that the pandemic has put on health-care professionals has led to a rise in applications to university health-care programs, the Toronto Star reports. According to the article, nursing programs at Ontario universities have been especially popular, with applications up by 73 percent for the 2021-22 academic year. Other programs that have seen a boost in applications include biological and biomedical sciences, and psychology. Higher-ed researcher Glen Jones says the pandemic has swayed how future students are planning their postsecondary careers. “We are talking about daily media conversations about the tremendous importance of health care … and the importance of these fields are resonating with young people who are trying to make decisions of where to go next,” he told the Star.

The increased interest in nursing is a boon as many health regions face a nursing shortage. The problem has become so critical in Quebec that the province recently introduced a financial incentive to get student nurses into the workplace. In January, the province launched scholarships for Quebec students pursing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Eligible full-time students can receive up to $13,500, and part-time students up to $6,750, for committing to full-time work in the province’s health and social services network between Jan. 17 and May 8, 2021. Participants must resume their studies the following school year.

Tri-council agencies to fund research on vaccine confidence, COVID-19 variants

Vaccine hesitancy

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) will soon launch $2.25-million funding to promote vaccine confidence in Canada. The agencies say the new funding is “targeted at Canadian non-profit organizations, non-federal museums and science centres, and academic institutions with a strong track record of science and/or health promotion. Researchers with an expertise in combating vaccine-related misinformation may apply, either individually or in collaboration with science and/or health promotion organizations. Proposed activities should address one of the following two themes: 1) Delivering vaccine-safety information to key communities and groups, or 2) Building capacity in the community to promote vaccine confidence.”

The competition will open in early March. Researchers can apply for up to $50,000 a year.

(In a similar vein, the City of Toronto announced $6.8 million to launch the Black Community COVID Response Plan, the cornerstone of which is the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, which will address vaccine hesitancy and other challenges around vaccine equity in Toronto.)

COVID-19 variants

CIHR will soon launch a new campaign to encourage original research on COVID-19 variants. Between now and the end of March 2021, CIHR will make funding available through a rapid research response to address SARS-CoV-2 variants, prioritizing the “biological characterization of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants to inform clinical management and evolving public health initiatives, and to provide critical, time-sensitive understanding of emerging variants to inform therapeutic and public health strategies.” This forthcoming rapid research fund aims to offer real-time assessments and guidance to decision-makers on issues like drug therapies, vaccine effectiveness and public health.

The agency says it will distribute $25 million through three new linked initiatives.

February 3, 2021

Universities’ summer plans: primarily online

Universities are starting to announce their plans for the spring and summer sessions, and it appears most will be continuing with primarily online instruction.

Moving east to west, Dalhousie University announced last Friday that the spring and summer terms “will be much like the fall and winter: largely online, with in-person instruction focused mostly on accreditation needs and experiential learning.” As for the fall, class-size restrictions may keep larger lecture classes online, “but our hope is that many tutorials, labs, and small-to-medium-sized classes (less than 100 students) will be able to be offered safely in person.”

Mount Saint Vincent University president Mary Bluechardt announced on Monday that, following consultation with members of the university community, a motion was approved at senate to continue with primarily online course delivery for summer 2021.

Likewise, at Carleton University, president Benoit-Antoine Bacon announced yesterday that the summer term will be held mostly online, although “we anticipate that some on-campus learning may be possible depending on public health developments.” Looking further ahead to fall 2021, “we will need a clearer idea of the progress of vaccination programs before we can make informed decisions,” Dr. Bacon said.

The Varsity student newspaper reports that the University of Toronto is expected to deliver courses mostly online this summer. In an email to the newspaper, a U of T spokesperson wrote that “based on current public health restrictions, we expect summer 2021 to look much like winter 2021.”

In a message to the community last Friday, University of Windsor president Rob Gordon said that, given the continued public health risks posed by COVID-19, the summer/intersession terms will be offered primarily remotely and online. However, as has been the case with the winter semester, “in-person courses may be available in some programs where current health guidelines allow and learning outcomes require it.” He additionally noted that with vaccination programs expanding their reach in the coming months, “we are planning a safe and measured return to face-to-face programming and on-campus activities in fall 2021.”

It’s a similar message at the University of Alberta. Given the current public health environment, the university says, “the safest approach for our community” during the spring and summer is to continue with to primarily offer courses remotely. However, “we will prioritize in-person learning where it is essential for program completion or progression.”

Limited return to campuses in Quebec?

As we reported in Monday’s update, the Quebec government is hinting that students may soon be able to return to classes. Yesterday, Quebec premier François Legault added to the speculation, saying university and CEGEP students should be able to return to in-person classes “at least once a week,” reports Le Devoir (in French). “It is time, at some point, for young people to be able to see their friends, see their teachers and have some social activity,” said the premier, adding that online learning has been “difficult for mental health.” Further details are expected to be unveiled within the next few days by higher education minister Danielle McCann.

UBC students behaving badly

According to the Vancouver Sun, the RCMP is looking into reports of large nighttime gatherings of University of British Columbia students on Wreck Beach, which is located a short, steep walk down from some campus residences. UBC’s director of university affairs, Matthew Ramsey, said the university expects staff, students and faculty to follow provincial health restrictions, which currently ban social gatherings of any size, even outdoors.

Also at UBC, there was controversy at the Peter A. Allard School of Law over a list of “rule breakers” that had been compiled by a group of students at the law faculty, which they apparently had planned to share publicly. According to a letter addressing the controversy, distributed by the law school’s career services office, “Any students involved in creating such a list are asked to immediately delete and destroy it and refrain from otherwise sharing the information … While it is absolutely frustrating to see people skirt public health orders, public shaming of this nature is completely inappropriate and unlikely to lead to increased accountability or change in behaviour.”

February 1, 2021

COVID cases on campus

Last week, a staff member at McMaster University tested positive for COVID-19. That person was last on campus at the McMaster Innovation Park on January 25.

The University of Calgary COVID dashboard reports three cases on campus in the last 14 days.

As of Friday, the outbreak at the University of Guelph has grown to 61 confirmed cases. The outbreak has been linked to parties in student residences in mid-January. Most of the positive cases involve domestic students who are taking classes online. To prevent further spread of the virus, COVID-positive students have been moved to a single residence. An additional 200 students are self-isolating in campus residences, which currently house more than 800 student residents. The university’s student affairs team checks in on self-isolating students daily. As a result of the outbreak, U of Guelph says it has strengthened “measures, monitoring and enforcement to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19 on campus.” Some of these changes include new security cameras and an increased presence for campus security at student residence halls.

Student housing and COVID protocol enforcement

U of Guelph isn’t the first university in Canada to face an outbreak in student housing. And a recent story published by The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto, leaves the impression that it won’t be the last Canadian university to deal with this problem if COVID-related protocols aren’t consistently applied on campuses. The article reports on the different approaches that U of T’s colleges are taking in their enforcement of health and safety measures in their student housing buildings and suggests that each one has issued its own interpretations of government health orders. It finds that, “U of T’s COVID-19 residence policies are largely decentralized, with colleges mostly deciding which measures to implement and how they will be enforced. This has left the seven individual protocols at U of T a patchwork of different measures.”

U of T’s COVID dashboard currently reports three cases of COVID-19 that were in contact with the St. George campus at some point, and six total cases involving U of T community members.

SSHRC announced winners of PEG COVID-19 Special Initiative program

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has revealed the latest recipients of funding for COVID-19 research through a special grant initiative. The special fund, folded into SSHRC’s existing Partnership Engage Grants program, was created last spring to support two competitions. This second and final round has awarded more than $2.5 million to 111 projects. SSHRC reports that the PEG COVID-19 Special Initiative has awarded more than $7.1 million in funding to nearly 300 research projects.

One of the projects approved in this round of funding will examine how children and youth across Canada view the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected their well-being. The work will be conducted through a partnership between Brock University researcher Heather Ramey, Heather Lawford at Bishop’s University, UNICEF Canada and the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement at the Students Commission of Canada. A full list of the latest competition winners and descriptions of their projects can be viewed on the SSHRC website.

Quebec minister hints at a return to campuses after provincial lockdown ends

Danielle McCann, Quebec’s minister for postsecondary education, says that after much consultation with public health, education stakeholders and students, the government will soon have news about a return to in-person learning for the postsecondary sector. The minister hinted at a return to campus during an interview conducted in French with newspaper Le Soleil that also touched on the topics of student and instructor mental health and vaccination. She said it’s possible that the government will take a regional approach to campus re-openings following the rollback of the province-wide restrictions after February 8. Read the full interview at Le Soleil.

CBU goes back to campus

One institution that’s already transitioning back to campus is Cape Breton University. Faculty, staff and students have started their return to the Nova Scotia school this week. Classes will continue to be held remotely until the spring term, but the university decided to slowly re-open campus to its community members to ease them back into in-person learning, which is slated to resume in May. Tanya Brann-Barrett, CBU’s associate vice-president, academic and research, told the CBC that the university doesn’t expect faculty and staff to “pull all of that [remote work] up and move it onto campus. The last thing we want to do is cause that kind of disruption in the middle of a semester.” But the university is encouraging staff to be on campus for at least part of the day “by doing things like keeping virtual office hours while at the university, or working in their labs.”

January 27, 2021

COVID cases on campus

An outbreak of COVID-19 has been declared at McGill University. According to Fabrice Labeau, deputy provost, student life and learning, 44 students living in residence had tested positive for the virus as of Sunday, with most of the affected students residing in Royal Victoria College. The outbreak is a result of unsanctioned gatherings in campus housing. The CBC reports that McGill responded by kicking some 15 students out of residence and suspending related privileges for seven days.

The number of cases tied to an outbreak in campus housing at the University of Guelph has climbed to 49. Public health declared the outbreak last week and traced it back to gatherings of about 50 people in total at the university’s East Village Townhouses nearly two weeks ago. A news report notes that 200 students are now self-isolating and that the university has issued 32 fines of $120 to students who attended the parties. In a statement to the Toronto Star, the university said it is “increasing security on campus, including security guards and more security cameras, within residences to ensure protocols are being followed by and is also considering implementing a curfew.”

Brock University says a member of its community recently tested positive for COVID-19. The individual was last on campus on January 19.

Public health officials in Halifax are asking all postsecondary students in the city to get tested for COVID-19 whether or not they have symptoms or have recently come into contact with someone who has the virus. Several cases have been identified in Nova Scotia’s student population, which has led the municipality to offer pop-up rapid testing at Dalhousie University. Rapid testing will also soon be available at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., and at Cape Breton University in Sydney, N.S.

Ontario promises funds for university pandemic relief and PPE research

Ontario’s Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano says the provincial government will provide COVID-relief support to postsecondary institutions facing financial shortages due to the pandemic. At a press conference on Tuesday, the minister said:

“Obviously there are impacts as a result of having to spend additional dollars on COVID-related supports and to help ensure health and safety … and obviously there were additional revenue losses as a result of reduced tuition, and then revenue losses as a result of not being able to use the facilities on campuses to the fullest. … We are working with our colleagues across government, and certainly with our institutions, and we are trying to quantify where the support is most necessary and the best way that we can use what are ultimately limited resources to try and remedy that the best that we can.”

Mr. Romano also announced that the government will distribute $2.3 million to McMaster University and the University of Toronto for research and development related to personal protective equipment. The projects are supported through the province’s Ontario Together Fund.

More than $1.1 million will go to U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s testing of new filters for N95, surgical and procedure masks, and to the school’s development of new masks and research into decontamination and reuse practices. The $1.3 million earmarked for McMaster will support the work of the Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials as it works with Canadian manufacturers in designing, manufacturing and testing PPE.

January 25, 2021

COVID cases on campus

This past Thursday, Guelph-Wellington-Dufferin Public Health declared an outbreak in the residence system at the University of Guelph. The university reports that the outbreak is connected to “unsanctioned gatherings” that took place January 15 and 16. As of yesterday, the university says there are 31 cases associated with this outbreak. According to CTV News, the university is looking into disciplinary action against the students who went to the parties. “We were extremely disappointed to learn that there were gatherings on campus,” said Carrie Chassels, vice-provost of student affairs. “The students involved in this high-risk activity have shown a serious lack of judgment and care for community protocols around COVID-19. Participating in a gathering on campus is a violation of the current lockdown regulations and health guidelines, as well as the expectations that we conveyed to students in residence.”

An individual at Acadia University tested positive for COVID-19 last week after having completed a 14-day self-isolation period. The student attended classes on campus January 18, 19 and 20. Public health has identified 10 close contacts, and warns that anyone in the university student centre between 12 and 2:30 p.m. on those days was potentially been exposed to the virus.

Laurentian University reported a new case in its student residences last week. The case is unrelated to a previous case reported in campus housing.

Mount Allison University also has a new case of COVID-19 in its community. The affected person is currently asymptomatic and self-isolating off campus. The university notes that this is the second case in its community since the start of the pandemic.

There are two new cases at McMaster University. The cases are unrelated: one involves a student who was last on campus on January 19, and the other involves an international student who had been quarantining in residence since arriving to campus in early January.

International students: co-op and affordable flights

International students who are on a co-op work term don’t have to wait for their permit to begin their job placements, according to a new policy released last week by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Toronto Star reports. Students can start working while their applications for their co-op work permit are being processed. This is a special permit that allows international students to complete all work components related to their academic degree, including co-op terms, internships and practicum. It is a separate permit that students have to apply for, in addition to their study permit, with which students are authorized to complete non-academic-related work. The new policy applies to students who are studying remotely in their home country as well.

Also last week, the University of Windsor and Air Canada announced that they have reached an agreement to help international students find affordable flights to Canada. “We are delighted to have entered into a partnership … especially given the changing international travel landscape,” says Chris Busch, associate vice-president for enrolment management at U of Windsor. Cooperation between the university and the airline “will facilitate the flight booking process while offering exclusive promotional rates for our students as they start their educational journey,” he says. Under current COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, international students can enroll and travel to Canada as long as they hold a study permit and the host university is a designated learning institution with a COVID-19 readiness plan approved by the federal government. U of Windsor does have the appropriate designation and approval.

McMaster offers residence rooms to health workers

As of January 20, McMaster University is offering residence rooms and meals at cost to health-care workers who need to self-isolate. The university will accommodate single-occupancy stays from three to 14 days. The program is being facilitated and staffed by the Thrive Group, a community-based non-profit organization.

McGill, ULaval plan to track sewage for COVID-19

The provincial research funding agency, the Fonds de recherche du Québec, announced earlier this month an investment of $1 million in a project to screen wastewater for COVID-19, led by researchers Peter Vanrolleghem at Université Laval and Dominic Frigon at McGill University. The other partners in the $1.7M project are the Trottier Family Foundation, Molson Foundation and the National Centre in Environmental Technology and Electrochemistry.

The six-month research initiative aims to test wastewater in major urban centres and smaller municipalities across Québec to detect the presence of the virus that is responsible for COVID-19. According to the announcement, “Making wastewater monitoring part of the crisis management approach enables early geolocation-based virus detection to help break the virus transmission chain and avoid outbreaks.” The study areas are Montréal, Laval and Québec City, as well as the Bas-Saint-Laurent and Mauricie-Centre-du-Québec regions.

Back in the fall, we reported on McMaster University’s efforts to monitor the wastewater at several sites on campus to provide an early warning to the presence of the novel coronavirus on campus. Queen’s University also announced in the fall it was starting a pilot project to monitor wastewater in the surrounding community as part of larger national wastewater surveillance project called the COVID-19 Wastewater Coalition.

January 20, 2021

COVID cases on campus

Brock University has disclosed a new case of COVID-19 in its community. The person involved was last on campus January 14.

London Health Sciences Centre’s University Hospital is dealing with a fresh outbreak of COVID-19. Just weeks after declaring the end of a COVID outbreak that had spread throughout the facility, a new outbreak of at least seven cases has been traced to the hospital’s emergency room. So far, the cases have been limited to hospital staff. The hospital is based at Western University.

Yesterday, McMaster University announced that a student had tested positive for the coronavirus. That person hadn’t visited campus since January 14.

Most universities in Toronto don’t post individual announcements alerting the community to positive cases at the institution. Instead, they maintain a dashboard to track reported cases. According to University of Toronto’s dashboard, three people who had recently visited the St. George (downtown) campus between January 14 and 17 had tested positive for COVID, while a total of five U of T community members had reported positive tests between January 14 and 17. York University’s COVID tracking site alerts the public to eight confirmed cases. An article published by the Ryersonian notes that Ryerson University has not been making case counts public, though the Ryerson Faculty Association has been made aware of 17 positive COVID-19 cases to date.

The University of Waterloo has been alerted to one new case in its community. That person hasn’t been on campus since January 5.

Bishop’s U rolls out on-campus COVID testing

Bishop’s University has hired a private firm to carry out COVID testing on students living in campus housing. Testing is voluntary and intended to avoid an outbreak like the institution in Sherbrooke, Quebec, dealt with last term. The CBC reports that the first round of the test is saliva-based and shipped to a U.S. lab in batches. If a batch returns a positive result, each person in that pool will be asked to submit a nasal swab to confirm the test results.

Dean of students Stine Linden-Andersen told the CBC that, so far, “students are very willing to do it. It’s not a painful test or anything, and it’s quite easily done.”

Memorial employees to return to campus February 1

In just under two weeks, all staff at Memorial University will be back to work full-time on campus. That’s the message university administration delivered in an update posted on Memorial’s website yesterday.

“Memorial’s campuses are safe. The university has followed all public health guidelines and implemented measures to ensure the return to campus is a positive experience,” the update reads, noting that COVID-19 case counts in Newfoundland and Labrador are low.

The return to campus started gradually in November and affects all departments. The university will recognize “limited exceptions based on density requirements, medical accommodations, work from home pilot programs and business continuity planning for essential functions and services. Faculty have had access to their offices since early in the summer and their terms of employment do not specify their hours or location of work.”

In the update, Memorial administrators note that empathy for staff during this transition is “crucial.”

Western chancellor off vaccine task force

The chancellor of Western University has resigned from Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force after a report surfaced that she had travelled to Barbados last month. Chancellor Linda Hasenfratz, who is also the CEO of auto parts manufacturer Linamar, was named to the task force responsible for vaccine roll out across the province late last year.

U of Calgary to examine COVID impacts and racial disparity in its community

The University of Calgary is currently running a survey of its community to find out how the pandemic is differently affecting its various populations. The university’s office of equity, diversity, and inclusion is overseeing the survey, which will be included as part of the institution’s report to the Dimensions EDI Pilot tri-agency program.

Survey data will be collected until the end of January. The office explains that the data will “help us understand how diverse members of our community are experiencing the pandemic and, in turn, better enable us to develop targeted support methods and policy changes with a better understanding of how identity impacts individual experiences.” The survey is open to faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers and students.

NSERC urges researchers to keep science in the spotlight

Alejandro Adem, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, sent a call out on behalf of the funding agency this week encouraging researchers to help maintain the public interest that STEM research has generated during the pandemic.

“Perhaps more than any period in recent memory, the time since Canada went into pandemic emergency lockdown mode has sometimes seemed like a sustained and intensive science lesson. The purpose of this message is to invite you to keep the momentum going and leverage this mass science lesson we’ve all participated in to foster a truly broad-based culture of science literacy and awareness. You represent the best of our cutting-edge science and engineering research, and together, we can inspire and encourage Canadians of all ages to explore how scientific discovery, innovation and technology help shape our daily lives. If there is one legacy of COVID-19 in Canada, it is that our country is one where people feel not just better informed, but also more capable of grasping scientific and technical issues. This means we’ll be in a stronger position to thrive in the post-pandemic world.”

The email goes on to urge researchers to participate in NSERC-sponsored youth outreach events Science Odyssey and Science Literacy Week.

January 18, 2021

COVID cases on campus

A few students in Nova Scotia tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Dalhousie University was alerted to two new cases involving a student – one on Thursday and another on Saturday. On Friday, Cape Breton University announced a second case involving a student on campus that week. A case was reported on Sunday at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Trent University reported one new case on campus last Thursday. The student tested positive while living in a residence hall reserved for quarantine.

A student living in residence at Laurentian University has tested positive for COVID-19.

Tri-agency updates COVID-related exceptions to training awards

Canada’s three main research funders – the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research – have issued an update for holders of their research training awards. Recipients at the master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral levels may continue to defer the start of their award or seek a pause (preferably in four-month increments) “for reasons related to the COVID-19 situation.”

The update also stipulates that the funding agencies “will also continue to support training award holders who, given the challenges posed by the pandemic, can only devote part-time hours to their research. These recipients may continue to hold their award and will be paid at the full amount. The amount will not be prorated, and the end date of their award will remain unchanged.”

With some exceptions, award recipients can also choose to make use of their funding while pursuing their research remotely rather than on site.

Public libraries in Quebec open for students

A number of public libraries around Quebec will be offering dedicated study spaces for students. Despite simultaneously rolling out strict lockdown measures across the province, the Quebec government has asked libraries to make these spaces available so that students at any level can have access to a reliable internet connection and a quiet location to work. Ève Lagacé, director general of the Association of Public Libraries of Quebec, told the Montreal Gazette that the organization asked the government to approve this plan in October after receiving several requests from the public.

Head of UBC school of public health steps down

Peter Berman announced on Friday that he has resigned as director of the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Berman had courted backlash after news broke that he had travelled outside of the country for personal reasons over the holiday break. In a letter posted to the UBC website, Dr. Berman noted that he decided to step down since his actions had created a division among the school’s faculty members. “I took this difficult decision based on my assessment that the conditions of distress and division currently prevailing at SPPH make it impossible for me to continue to provide effective leadership to grow and develop our school, our community and our profession in my role as SPPH Director,” he wrote. “I deeply regret any actions of mine that may have caused this situation.”

January 13, 2021

COVID cases on campus

Brock University has been alerted that a member of its community recently contracted COVID-19.

On January 12, McMaster University reported two new, unrelated cases in its community. One involves a student who was last on campus on January 8, and the other is a staff member employed by a third-part company who had last been on campus January 7.

According to the COVID-19 dashboard maintained by Queen’s University, that institution reported five cases in its off-campus community between January 4 and 10. No cases have been reported for the current week.

It seems Nova Scotia’s mandatory isolation period for out-of-province students and its strong encouragement for these students to get tested a few days after entering the province is seeing results. Three of the province’s eight new cases reported today involved university students:

A student at Cape Breton University has tested positive for COVID-19. The student arrived on campus January 5. The student has been isolating off-campus since their arrival in the region and voluntarily participated in asymptomatic COVID testing.

A second student at St. Francis Xavier University has tested positive for the coronavirus. The student lives off campus.

St. Mary’s University reports a positive case involving a student living in campus accommodations.

N.S. earmarks $25M for universities affected by COVID-19

The provincial government of Nova Scotia will make $25 million available to help universities offset the added costs of responding to the pandemic. The money will help 10 universities, which have all seen a loss in revenue from tuition and ancillary services as well as added expenses related to online learning, implementing new safety protocols and other late-breaking changes. A Global News report breaks down the funding that will be delivered to each institution:

  • Acadia University $2,187,700
  • Atlantic School of Theology $218,800
  • Cape Breton University $2,187,700
  • Dalhousie University $9,479,700
  • Mount Saint Vincent University $1,458,400
  • NSCAD University $1,215,400
  • FX University $3,646,100
  • Saint Mary’s University $2,916,900
  • University of King’s College $1,324,700
  • Université Sainte-Anne $364,600

CTV News notes that this institutional relief package comes on the heels the province’s promise to offer a one-time grant of $750 to all recipients of Nova Scotia Student Assistance for the 2020-21 school year. Some 13,000 students will benefit from the temporary grant program.

Head of UBC public health school apologizes for holiday travel but faculty aren’t buying it

Peter Berman, head of the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia wrote a public apology for travelling to Hawaii over the holiday break. Nineteen faculty members of the school Dr. Berman oversees have since published an open letter expressing their disappointment and frustration with his decision to vacation abroad, his lack of respect for public health guidelines discouraging non-essential travel and his failure to set a good public example.

Laurentian offers rapid antigen testing

Laurentian University is offering Rapid COVID-19 Antigen testing for campus residents and are now testing asymptomatic students at their request. In a message to the community, president Robert Haché noted that any rapid test that returns a positive result will then be subject to more rigorous testing within 24 hours to confirm. “The ability to test asymptomatic individuals is above and beyond what most campuses are able to provide, and we expect that it will help us detect positive cases more quickly,” he wrote. The testing was made possible due to a grant from the Ministry of Health and Public Health Ontario.

Another virtual convocation for York

It’s only January, but York University has decided to cancel in-person convocation celebrations in June. Once again the university will opt for a virtual ceremony. In a statement posted to York’s website, president Rhonda Lenton said that graduates will be invited to a live ceremony once it’s safe to do so. “If it is safe to do so, and within public health guidelines, we may be able to further enhance our celebration event with some limited in-person activities. We will have more details to share about these plans later in the winter term,” she said.

January 12, 2021


International student update

Air travel restrictions

Travellers flying into Canada from abroad must now show proof of a negative COVID-19 test issued within days of boarding their Canada-bound flight. The new rule came into effect on January 7. All travellers aged 5 and up must be tested within 72 hours regardless of whether their travel is for non-essential or essential reasons (including those who have been approved to travel for work or study abroad). Airlines specifically require passengers to show the results of polymerase chain reaction or loop-mediated isothermal amplification tests.

Many international travellers (such as these WestJet customers) are finding it difficult to book tests and get their results back in time for their flights, to which Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu said: “This is exactly why we are advising people not to travel internationally. … [S]tay home, cancel your travel if not absolutely necessary.” Travellers must still quarantine for 14 days upon entering Canada despite a negative COVID-19 test.

An explainer by CTV News notes that “approximately 6,000 cases of COVID-19 in the country – just under two percent of the total – have been linked to international travel.” Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control are alerting passengers on more than a dozen flights that occurred over the holidays, both international and domestic, of potential COVID-19 exposure.

Post-graduation work permits

Last week, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino announced that recent international students in Canada who either currently hold or have held a post-graduation work permit (PGWP) will be eligible for a new temporary open work permit. This decision is set to help holders of PGWPs who have seen their employment opportunities drastically cut back due to the pandemic. According to a press release, these new open permits will be valid for 18 months and will allow former international students to stay in Canada and find work – a key requirement for permanent residency. PGWPs are typically valid from between one to three years.

To qualify for the new alternate work permit, an applicant must either hold a PGWP that expired on or after January 30, 2020, or a PGWP that expires in four months or less from the date they apply for the new permit. Applicants must also have “a valid temporary status, or be applying to restore their status,” and must currently be in Canada. Applications open on January 27 and will be accepted until July 27.

IRCC estimates that up to 52,000 recent postsecondary graduates with expired or expiring PGWPs could benefit from the new open work permit. The ministry notes that of the “nearly 61,000 PGWP holders whose work permit had an expiry date between January and December 2020, about half either have already become permanent residents or have a permanent residence application in processing.”

In a statement to the Toronto Star, Mr. Mendicino said the new policy sends a “simple” message to international students and graduates: “We don’t just want you to study here, we want you to stay here.”

The federal government notes that international students contribute $21 billion to Canada’s economy every year.

In December, World Education Services published survey results suggesting that international students in Canada are disappointed with the country’s pandemic response and supports for their cohort. According to Times Higher Education, nearly 5,000 respondents said that “more than a quarter had lost their primary income during COVID shutdowns and that one-third have struggled to pay housing costs. At the same time, such students are either ineligible for government social services or unaware of what assistance they could receive.”

Quarantine plans

Despite these new travel restrictions, universities are still anticipating a small wave of international students to come to campus for the winter term and are planning accordingly.

Both international students and domestic students living on campus at the University of Windsor will have to adhere to “a modified quarantine” while Ontario operates under a lockdown. The university has prepared an infographic to explain the specific measures required for international students (i.e. pre-departure COVID-19 tests, quarantine accommodation bookings, etc.). However, all students residing in campus housing will have to get tested for COVID-19 during the university’s scheduled testing clinics this week. Students will remain in quarantine for either 14 days after arriving in residence, or until they receive a negative COVID-19 test result.

International students joining Université de Sherbrooke are being paired up with a peer mentor for the duration of their two-week quarantine. These mentors help the new students integrate to the university and the local community as best as they can through virtual technology. Radio-Canada notes that many of the international students who decided to come to Sherbrooke despite the provincial lockdown and the online-only term did so to simplify their workload (no more tricky time-zone differences) and are feeling hopeful about the months ahead.

Federal policy requires postsecondary institutions to have provincially approved COVID-19 plans in place in order to welcome international students to campus. These plans must outline how the university will enforce and support a two-week quarantine – where the student will be housed, how they will travel from airport to those accommodations, etc. But, as this article from Global News explains, each university can choose how it will meet these expectations.

The article examines how two institutions in Nova Scotia are approaching the accommodations requirement: Saint Mary’s University is putting students up in residence or at an approved hotel, with the possibility of fees for either option being partially covered by a subsidy. Meanwhile, Dalhousie University students are quarantining in hotels on their own dime upon arrival in the province. In a statement released last week, Dalhousie explains why it opted for this plan:

“Dalhousie’s plan, due to the number of students, our location and need to provide the required supervision, had no option other than to use hotels because on-campus housing was unfortunately not an option. Providing the necessary supervision to hundreds of international students throughout the Halifax Regional Municipality and the province was not possible. A university with very few international students living off campus in a rural community in one or two locations may be in a position to offer the appropriate supervision being requested by the government. But this would depend on the university’s unique situation.”

The statement also noted that Dalhousie has committed to pay 50 percent of the quarantine costs for “new international students and those returning for the first time since the start of the pandemic,” up to a total of $400,000 for the cohort. The institution has aside a total of $100,000 in financial aid for those students who need additional assistance covering these costs.

An official at St. Thomas University told the CBC that New Brunswick is requiring international students to get tested for COVID 10 days after finishing their quarantine.

Untangling the situation in Atlantic Canada

It’s not just international students who are facing quarantine woes at the start of this term. Although the Atlantic bubble burst some months ago, Nova Scotia has only recently tightened restrictions on provincial border crossings from New Brunswick. Anyone travelling from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia will now have to self-isolate for 14 days. Only travellers from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are currently exempt from Nova Scotia’s isolation rule. Dalhousie is advising travellers from these two provinces not to stop or to minimize stops in New Brunswick on their way to Nova Scotia. It is also encouraging anyone who arrived from New Brunswick or who had visitors from New Brunswick within the past 14 days to get tested for COVID. St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish had asked that students from New Brunswick arrive by January 10 and that students arriving from other Atlantic provinces delay their arrival to January 24, with in-person instruction resuming on January 25.

The Government of Nova Scotia has decided that domestic students arriving in the province won’t be required to get tested for the coronavirus. It is, however, strongly recommending that all postsecondary students who arrive in the province from outside Atlantic Canada on or after January 4 to get one COVID-19 test halfway through their 14-day self-isolation period.

On January 5, New Brunswick increased its pandemic alert level to orange due to rising COVID case numbers. The University of New Brunswick announced it will restart the few in-person classes it’s offering this term as of January 18. According to the CBC, the province will welcome 1,200 new and returning university students to the province for winter term. Each of these students will have to self-isolate for the two-week period. The province is also recommending that domestic students get tested for COVID 10 days after they’re self-isolation period has ended (this is reportedly mandatory for international students arriving in the province).

Approximately 600 students at the University of Prince Edward Island are self-isolating after arriving in the province for the new school term. Students needing a space to isolate have been offered hotel rooms. Those students who are arriving on P.E.I. for the first time this school year, their room and meals are free, but those who are returning after holiday travel will have to pay for their expenses out of pocket. “It was viewed that if you make a choice to leave, there are implications for that,” Donna Sutton, associate vice-president of students and registrar at UPEI, told the CBC. She said about 370 UPEI students are self-isolating in the hotel rooms provided, while the rest had made their own isolation plans.

Universities ask students to take extra precaution at start of winter term

The new precautions in Atlantic Canada are just some of the steps that universities across the country are taking in the hopes of safely transitioning into the winter term. Queen’s University, for one, is essentially asking students to stay away not just from campus but also from the city of Kingston while Ontario’s lockdown is in effect. The university is “strongly urging all students living on or off campus to avoid returning to Kingston until after the shutdown ends, unless absolutely necessary for their academic activities or wellbeing.” The shutdown is currently scheduled to end on January 23, but with today’s announcement of a stay-at-home-order coming on January 14, it’s possible the lockdown will be extended.

An article in the Globe and Mail outlines some of the other measures that universities in Canada are implementing, or that they’re asking students and staff to undertake, including Western University’s decision to stagger residence move-in through to late February and after reading week – a move we reported on in yesterday’s COVID update.

January 11, 2021

Welcome back, readers. We hope you have a safe and smooth transition into the winter term and into this new year. For our first COVID update of 2021, we’ll start with COVID case numbers on campuses and return tomorrow with updates on developments for international students in Canada, the situation universities in Atlantic Canada are facing as COVID cases spread across the region, and other news.

COVID-19 cases on campus

Several cases have been reported at universities in Nova Scotia.

St. Francis Xavier University finished 2020 without a single case of COVID-19 in its community (see update posted on December 21, 2020). Unfortunately, it’s starting off 2021 with two positive cases. Last week, the university reported that a student who returned to residence in Antigonish on January 3 was self-isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus. Over the weekend, StFX added a second case to its total count after another student in residence tested positive (the cases are unrelated).

Dalhousie University has two cases of COVID-19 in its community. On January 5, the university announced that a student in campus housing in Halifax had tested positive and is now self-isolating with the university’s assistance. Yesterday, the province reported that a Dalhousie student living off campus in Halifax also tested positive.

In Wolfville, N.S., a student at Acadia University has tested positive for the virus, though remains asymptomatic. The student is self-isolating in residence. “This development is a reminder that COVID-19 continues to have an impact on our daily lives. The onus is on each of us to do what we can to protect ourselves and others. Please stay safe and healthy, and follow the best practices that health experts continue to stress during the pandemic,” said a message posted to Acadia’s website on Sunday.

In one of the hardest-hit regions of Ontario, the University of Windsor has identified one case of COVID-19 involving a community member who had recently been on campus. The university has reported a total of 19 cases since March 2020.

McMaster University has been alerted to several cases among its community members. The university posted an update on January 4 noting three unrelated cases involving two employees (one who’d last been on campus on December 21 and the other on December 22) and one international graduate student who had been quarantining in residence according to federal guidelines after arriving in the country in late December. On January 7, the university posted an update noting that a staff member who had been on campus earlier that same week had tested positive for COVID-19. The following day, McMaster identified a separate staff case involving an employee who had been on campus on December 29.

On its COVID tracking dashboard, the University of Toronto has identified seven total cases of COVID-19 involving U of T staff or students, though only two have been confirmed on a U of T campus: one at its St. George campus in downtown Toronto and one at its Scarborough campus.

The University of Waterloo confirms that one person who visited campus on January 4 has since tested positive for the coronavirus.

University Hospital, located on the Western University campus, seems to have gotten its COVID-19 cases under control after seven weeks of outbreaks in the institution. (Hat tip to Ken Steele for bringing that update to our attention.) Unfortunately, this good news for the hospital comes just as the Middlesex-London region reaches record case counts (University Hospital might be outbreak-free, but it’s still struggling with overcapacity and has recently brought in a refrigerated trailer to temporarily store the dead). The situation facing the region has prompted Western to delay the start of its few in-person learning activities to February 21, after the reading week break. The university will also stagger the return of students to residence into February.

According to a tracking dashboard, the University of Manitoba has had one active case of COVID-19 in its community between December 23 and January 25, which was identified at the university’s Fort Garry campus.

As of January 8, the University of Calgary is reporting three cases that involved possible campus community exposure in the past four to seven days.

And on a related note, the Ubyssey explains why the University of British Columbia doesn’t publicly disclose its COVID-19 case numbers:

“The BC Centre for Disease Control and other B.C. public health institutions have focused on patient privacy throughout the pandemic. This means that while specific health advisories might be posted for bars, restaurants or other places where contact tracing is challenging, cases on campus are not reported to the university community unless contact tracing is impossible, said a Vancouver Coastal Health spokesperson.”

Read archived updates from previous months:

December 2020

November 2020

October 2020

September 2020

August 2020

July 2020

June 2020

May 2020

April 2020

March 2020

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  1. J.Creagh / March 13, 2020 at 10:58

    What about Guelph University, what is their status?
    Thank you

  2. Sam Silverstone / March 13, 2020 at 15:59

    If I were a secondary- education institution (whether vocational school, college, CEGEP, university
    or otherwise) and have the option to end inperson classes and to go online instead and let students
    stay home and complete their year online, I would take that option given the current uncertainties surrounding COVID-19. Most of these post-secondary institutions (except for those in Ontario) have
    not exercised this option instead wilfully hoping all will be well or until a student or staff or family member of any of these institutions gets the COVID-19! The legally responsible action for any educational institution at this point in time and given the above online option for students is to exercise that option and send students and staff home, NOT to wish and wait until there is one or more COVID-19 cases, suspected or otherwise on campus. This especially true for institutions offering residence accomodations for their students. CAUTION to all such institutions: it is not so farfetched that any student or staff suffering damages or injury (or death) from the COVID-19 could sue the institution for gross negligence in not having exercised the closure and online option instead of the high risk option of maintaining inperson classes in face of the unknown. I wonder whether legal counsels for theses educational institutions
    are being involved in discussions and decisions to continue student inperson attendance or instead
    to stay home and continue classes and work online in greater safety?

  3. Helen / March 20, 2020 at 13:21

    Would now be a good time to point out to university administrators that their heavy reliance on contract instructors perpetuates the social determinants of health issues which arise in relation to precarious employment? We have an entire cohort of PhD’s saddled with the related student debt, who have been earning a fraction of what their permanently employed counterparts earn facing unemployment at the end of the semester. Since nobody is in a hurry to shake hands, not a lot of job interviews will be happening for the foreseeable future. So much for equity in academia.

  4. Karsten Loepelmann / March 23, 2020 at 18:15

    This is incorrect: “…the University of Alberta extended the same offer [to have the choice to receive a letter grade for their winter term courses, or to opt for pass/fail] to students late last week.” UAlberta has gone with pass/fail only, which has greatly upset many people.

    It would be nice to have a tally of which Canadian institutions have gone with pass/fail vs. opt in to receive a letter grade.

  5. marko / April 1, 2020 at 11:51

    Are their still maintenance/cleaning staff and trades still working in Canadian universities and why?