Eduvation Blog

Reality Check: “Normal” will be Fall 2022

Good morning!

Today is Orange Shirt Day, a time to commemorate the injustice of residential schools and their lasting impact on Indigenous peoples in Canada. (Check out #ICYMI below, if you want to better understand the experiences of RS survivors.) The federal Liberals have just introduced legislation to make Sep 30 a statutory holiday, as recommended in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

As the world surpasses 1 million COVID19 deaths, the UK broke its daily records for new cases and deaths yesterday. In the US, cases are still rising in 21 states, particularly Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Alabama. 46 national PSE associations are lobbying congress for help coping with another $120 billion in COVID19 losses. 1 in 1,020 Black Americans has died. (And of course the president insists the pandemic has run its course.)

Here in Canada, it’s a sign of just how bad things look in Quebec that the province has not only shut down bars in Montréal, but has finally agreed to use the federal COVID19 exposure notification app! uSherbrooke reported 15 student cases last week, and in the past few days, 3 more Quebec universities have decided to move their winter terms online.

As usual, I’ll summarize the latest COVID developments on campus, but then we’re going to gaze ahead into the future, and that glorious day when we can declare this pandemic done…


Cases on Campus

17 new Cases (well, new to me)…

Queen’s U added 1 student case on Tuesday (now 14 total)  Kingston Whig-Standard

St Lawrence College reported yesterday afternoon that a student in Cornwall has tested positive.  Twitter

uSherbrooke reported 15 cases in a single program last week, traced to a gathering in a bar. All year 1 and 2 students in the program are now studying remotely.  Le Journal


Winter Term

Since yesterday…

Carleton U senate has officially confirmed that the winter semester will proceed online, “with some leeway for selected optional instruction on campus… if circumstances allow.” Senate is also considering a return to compassionate grading practices, such as converting “F” grades into “UNS.”  Carleton

Concordia U will deliver its Winter 2021 term primarily online.  Le Devoir

Memorial U’s senate decided yesterday that MUN will continue to operate in a primarily remote teaching and learning environment for the winter 2021 semester. There will be exceptions for clinical components in Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy and other programs. MUN

uMontréal will deliver its Winter 2021 term primarily online, with slightly more multi-modal classes.  Le Devoir

uQuebec en Outaouais will deliver its Winter 2021 term primarily online.  Le Devoir


“Immunity in 2020 is no closer to being just around the corner than prosperity was in 1930. The route to immunity without a vaccine would be through graveyards filled with hundreds of thousands of Americans who did not have to die.”Thomas Frieden, Former Director, CDC


Universal Masking

A Selfish Reason to Mask Up

New research from UC San Francisco may finally highlight a self-serving reason to wear a face mask: by reducing the “dose” of viral particles you inhale, your immune system may have a better opportunity to cope, and you may experience reduced severity of symptoms, or even be asymptomatic, if you contract COVID19. “This possibility is consistent with a long-standing theory of viral pathogenesis, which holds that the severity of disease is proportionate to the viral inoculum received.” The study compares cases on 2 infected cruise ships, and finds that where surgical and N95 masks were worn, 81% of infected passengers never developed symptoms – whereas on other ships, 82% did develop symptoms.  New England Journal of Medicine

Further research is required, of course. The immunity generated in response to a milder case of COVID19 might not be sufficient protection. But if we can effectively expose ourselves to a weakened dose of the virus by wearing a mask, we could take a much safer path to herd immunity.


“If it turns out that [masking] may be one of the best ways to protect yourself, you might see [anti-maskers] coming on board a little more, which would generally be an advantage to society as a whole.”Timothy Sly, Epidemiologist, Ryerson U


Reality Check: Recap

On Monday, we saw that the second wave of the COVID19 pandemic is surging in many parts of the northern hemisphere, aerosol transmission between gregarious students is going to be nearly impossible to prevent, and suppressing the virus through a firm lockdown would have been more practical than trying to “manage” our way to any form of herd immunity. Ultimately the pandemic knows no borders: on-campus or off-, across provinces, states, countries and continents – so long as any country is vulnerable, we all are. Vaccine distribution to all countries, rich and poor, will be necessary.

On Tuesday, I explained that symptom self-assessments are not enough: widespread asymptomatic testing is required, but expensive, to safely reopen our campuses. Meanwhile, governments are trying to focus scarce testing capacity on at-risk, symptomatic cases – and narrowing the definition of symptomatic, to boot. We will have to wait for multiple vaccines to be developed, vaccine hesitancy will pose a significant challenge in some regions, and ultimately the durability of any immunity to COVID19 remains unknown. The shape of the COVID19 pandemic is likely to be “wavy” for some time yet.


“We are not out of the woods yet, far from it.”Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President, Carleton U


Ending the Pandemic

Even once a vaccine becomes available, it may well take YEARS for some people to willingly immerse themselves in campus life again. A third of us may wait to see what side-effects arise among early-vaxxers, and some pre-existing conditions may make the vaccines unsafe or ineffectual for some people. The immunocompromised may continue to be at risk. Plenty of scholars are natural introverts anyway, and anxiety disorders have been rising among students for years. The prospect of resurgences and more border closures may make some international students – and particularly their parents – less willing to take the leap and study abroad. (But I’ll save the question of international mobility for another time.)

There has long been a very real danger of emergent zoonotic diseases breaking out into epidemics or pandemics. After living through a year or more of COVID19 precautions, an entire generation is going to be more conscious of that reality than any previous cohort.

So, when will this all end?


The End: 2021? 2022? 2023?

The “epidemiological end point” of the pandemic, when herd immunity is achieved, is not the same as a “transition to a form of normalcy,” which McKinsey argues might even come first. (Pessimists like me would say it’s going to come much later.) Normalcy is when “life can resume without fear of ongoing mortality,” when people return to travel, restaurants, factories and gyms, and will be enabled by vaccination, rapid testing, and improved therapies. For the US, they calculate an epidemiological end point in Q3 or Q4 of 2021, and a potential return to normalcy sooner than that. (I’m not convinced: McKinsey has been overly optimistic in every report they have issued this year, almost like their clients prefer it that way.) Although McKinsey also observes that the worst-case scenario might see the US “still battling COVID19 into 2023 and beyond.”  McKinsey

 “In the US and most other developed economies, the epidemiological end point is most likely to be achieved in the third or fourth quarter of 2021, with the potential to transition to normalcy sooner, possibly in the first or second quarter of 2021.”McKinsey


Pandemics become Endemic

When the COVID19 pandemic finally does subside, it looks increasingly likely that the virus “is never going away,” but will instead become endemic to humanity. COVID19 is particularly insidious because it is highly transmissible, can jump to animal reservoirs, and up to 40% of infected hosts are asymptomatic. The best-case scenario may be that SARS-CoV-2 becomes a fifth coronavirus, joining the 4 that cause most common colds, circulating annually and occasionally causing serious illness in the elderly. Since live hosts transmit more effectively than dead ones, many viruses evolve to be less deadly over time. Like the flu or the common cold, COVID19 may continue circulating for centuries, but without disrupting our society as it did in 2020. The Atlantic


Wearing Masks Right Through 2021

Many experts, including CDC Director Robert Redfield, believe that face masks may prove far more effective than a vaccine at containing the COVID19 pandemic. Vaccines might be effective in 70% or less of the population, might be in short supply, and might not stop people from spreading the virus. Initial doses will go to the elderly, immunocompromised, front-line healthcare workers, and first responders. After the first shot, we’ll need to continue wearing our masks until the second vaccination, some 21-28 days later. And like flu shots, the COVID19 vaccine might never fully protect us. Wearing masks, on the other hand, we could get transmission “down to almost zero.”  Huffington Post


The Shot is Not the End

Eventually, the pandemic will end. 11 top experts believe one or more vaccines will complete phase 3 trials and be approved in the US by Feb 2021. The leading candidates require 2 doses 4 weeks apart, and storage at -70°C, which will demand coordinated logistics on a national scale. It will likely take until at least Nov 2021 for vaccination to be widespread across the US, and months longer before restaurants, bars and theatres can reopen. “Even with a vaccine, for the indefinite future, handshakes are out and masks are in.” (In Japan, many people have been wearing masks annually during flu season.) These rushed, first-generation vaccines may not be entirely effective. Moreover, our interconnected world will pose a further challenge before borders and travel can resume: Oxfam warns that 61% of the global population will not have a vaccine until at least 2022. COVID19 will gradually fade into an endemic, seasonal virus that does little damage in a vaccinated population, but odds are good we will all need booster shots every year or two. It will take 2-3 years before international travel results to “pre-COVID normalcy,” but “there’s going to be a fundamental fear” that may take a generation to subside.  Politico


“The likelihood that we are hitting a home run in the first at bat is just very low.”Michael Kinch, Director, Centers for Research Innovation in Biotechnology and Drug Discovery, Washington U


“I think there’s going to be a fundamental fear. My grandparents lived through the Depression. And for the rest of their lives, even when they had money and some degree of financial security, they to a degree acted like they were living through the Depression The new normal will be fine… but I don’t think we’ll go back to January in my lifetime.”Michael Kinch, Director, Centers for Research Innovation in Biotechnology and Drug Discovery, Washington U


Predictions for PSE

The only reason I have been covering the pandemic in such detail for the past 6 months is to try to forecast what the next few years will look like for higher ed, and therefore what sort of lasting impacts COVID19 may have on our society, and the PSE sector. Virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists and sociologists all warn that there is much we still do NOT know with any certainty or precision. But to some extent, the question of how Fall 2021 will look for higher education is a marketing question, too. And based on what we DO know, I think we can predict…

Fall 2021 will be Primarily Remote

The pivot to predominantly online delivery spilled over, predictably, from Winter 2020 to Spring and Summer, then Fall, and now Winter 2021. Watching the pattern has been very much like watching dominoes inevitably cascade against each other.

Frankly there is no reason to expect Spring and Summer 2021 to be any different, and at best, Fall 2021 will see us introducing only slightly more on-campus learning opportunities in a blended approach (like many institutions tried this year).

Now granted, maybe we will have more accurate, affordable forms of mass COVID19 testing before that, and perhaps we’ll miraculously get better at contact tracing and mask wearing, allowing slightly more people to return to campus. But the behaviour of people in the world’s democracies for the past 9 months does not inspire much confidence.

Considering the significant potential threat that COVID19 could pose to students’ cardiac and neurological health, it seems to me that risking their health in a return to campus would be wrong-headed, for institutions dedicated to developing their hearts and minds.

Remember, barring politically-motivated shortcuts, the first vaccine will likely clear phase 3 clinical trials in January or February 2021. Even optimistic estimates are that it will take 9 months to vaccinate most (willing) North Americans – which would take us until October or November 2021. (As even McKinsey’s optimists said, the epidemiological end-point in the US will be Q3 or Q4, or round about September/October.) Administrators will have to announce their plans for Fall delivery long before that.

Winter 2022 will be Blended

By the time our campuses close for the winter holiday, if all goes well, we might be able to assume that many of our staff and students have been immunized – but some will have medical reasons for waiting, and many more will have anxiety holding them back from a full-fledged return to campus. The same arguments we used in planning for Fall 2020 will still hold: in order not to disadvantage entire groups of students, we will have to ensure that courses can be taken at a distance, and to be fair, we should end the year the way we begin it.

And remember, by that point we will have spent 21 straight months growing accustomed to researching, teaching, learning, and working remotely. I expect we will see some massive enhancements and innovations in the teleconferencing platforms that make them far more intuitive and effective, and overcome some of the psychological fatigue they currently cause. And we will have been asserting repeatedly throughout those 21 months that what we are delivering to students is worth every dime of tuition. I think the return to normal will be more like a dimmer switch, than an on-off switch.

Admittedly, this is a prediction and it may need revision as more evidence arises. Perhaps some institutions will be able to establish a campus bubble and immunize everyone within. Perhaps extroverts will rush back to campus even before it’s technically safe to do so. But I think it’s vitally important that we all realize there is a distinct possibility that the return to “normal” may not occur until Fall 2022. That should influence how we make decisions about budgets, pedagogy, recruitment and more.


“I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.”

To quote Adrian Monk, the fictional germophobic detective, whose obsession with Clorox wipes in 2002 would have prepared him perfectly for the times we’re living in now.


“For science and medical research, six months is a relative blink of an eye.”  Andrea Gawrylewski in Scientific American


In recognition of Orange Shirt Day today, hundreds of videos have already been released by colleges, universities, elementary and secondary schools, churches, libraries and cities across Canada (particularly in the West). I’ve put together a short playlist here of examples from the past week (let me know if I missed yours).

Here’s a very good example from CdnPSE…


Recognizing Orange Shirt Day

Langara College published a high-quality 10-min video in honour of Orange Shirt Day today, featuring moving first-hand accounts and interpretative music and reading performances from 2 residential school survivors: Elder-in-Residence Nk’xetko, and Musqueam Community Elder Meyaltxn. It’s 10 minutes well spent if you want to contemplate truth and reconciliation today!  YouTube


Thanks for reading. Stay safe and stay sane!

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