Tuesday, September 7, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and “Shanah tovah” to all observing Rosh Hashanah! I hope you enjoyed a relaxing Labour Day weekend, because of course we’re all hitting the ground running this week!
When I titled today’s issue “Are We There Yet?’ I (of course) did NOT mean “back to normal.” Instead, I mean something more like, “have we finally reached collective awareness in CdnPSE that this Fall will be anything BUT?”
I think the answer is, “mostly” – which may just mean I can finally stop emphasizing the severity of the COVID19 pandemic. Tracking the progress of the virus, its recurrent waves and mutations, government precautions and public pushback has dominated far too much of my waking hours, and this newsletter, for the past 18 months. My intention has always been to pivot the focus of the Insider back towards broader topics – emerging trends and future scenarios for PSE – once the pandemic waned as the overwhelming preoccupation of institutional leaders.
I’m hoping, at least for a few weeks this term, that we can ease into that…
With any luck, my weekly Monday “pandemic précis” will become ever briefer and more befitting its name. Since Friday (“End of the ‘Best Summer Ever’”) here’s what (I think) has become blindingly obvious to most people in higher ed…
The Fourth Wave is Here
Epidemiologists have been forecasting a fourth wave of the pandemic this Fall since the beginning of the year, although the expectation was that the return of cold and flu season, and reopening of K-12 classrooms, would be primary drivers. Unfortunately, instead the fourth wave was precipitated early, thanks to over-eager politicians lifting mask mandates and gathering restrictions this summer (particularly in BC and AB). It now seems clear that Alberta (and others) “miscalculated” when they assumed vaccination alone would prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed this time. BC is warning it could see record case counts later this month. Ontario and Quebec are reporting surging COVID19 infections and reimposing restrictions to protect their healthcare systems.
Delta isn’t Decoupling
The Delta variant’s ability to breakthrough vaccine protection, and the vulnerability of the unvaxxed, partially-vaxxed, and those under 12 to infection (and also “long-COVID”), has revealed that the supposed “decoupling” of infection and hospitalization curves was tragically overestimated. American COVID19 deaths have recently hit 1,500 per day, including schoolchildren and teachers. (These are particularly concentrated in the unvaxxed south, from Georgia through Texas – where more children are also being hospitalized with COVID19.) Even Liberty U (the private evangelical U in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell) has had to quarantine its entire campus and pivot to online delivery with 488 active cases on campus, just days after reopening without mask or vaccine mandates.
“Vaccines do decouple individuals from severe outcomes dramatically on an individual level, but because of the large group of people who have no vaccine protection, we have seen the Delta variant spread widely and cause severe outcomes at much greater rates in unvaccinated adults.” – Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta
Worse is Coming
Even with vaccinations rising and public health restrictions being reimposed, you may recall from my “COVID101” that the mortality lag can be a month or more (particularly as ICU treatments improve and younger patients wind up in hospital). Infection curves will continue to rise for weeks. With Canada’s borders now open to (vaccinated) tourists, and classrooms reopening in K-12 and PSE, increases in contacts and infections are a mathematical certainty. And of course, vaxxed people are starting to let down their guard, like the thousands of students partying this weekend in Waterloo, Kingston, and Victoria (among doubtless many others). The latest federal projections are that Canada could hit 15,000 new cases a day within 2 weeks.
“The moment you get people back indoors… we will see accelerations.” – Theresa Tam, chief public health officer, Canada
More Vaccination is Better
Although 77% of Canadians are now fully vaxxed, the same is true of only 63% of those 18-29. Alberta is now trying $100 bribes. Aside from Alberta and Saskatchewan, the rest of Canada finally seems ready to implement official vaccine certificates, cards or passports to restrict access to non-essential and high-risk activities, on-campus or off. (80% of Canadians now support vaccine passports, and that includes 77% of Albertans.) Even Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is now promising a national proof-of-vaccine system, although it may be as much as a year away. Thankfully CdnPSE administrations are responding to faculty and student concerns (see below).
Masks are still Essential
Since fully-vaxxed people can still be vectors for transmission of the Delta variant to millions of unvaxxed, immunocompromised, and young people, pandemic health precautions are still crucial. Highly-vaccinated Israel is a perfect test case, where infections and hospitalizations have begun surging again after relaxing health restrictions. That’s why Ontario never did lift its provincewide mask mandate in indoor public spaces, why BC and Manitoba recently reinstated them, and Quebec expanded masking requirements for schools. Even Alberta reimposed mask mandates and liquor curfews on Friday afternoon, and cancelled its plan to end COVID19 testing on Sunday. As The Atlantic puts it, “the masks were working all along” (and we now have proof from a randomized trial with 350,000 participants).
Campus Density remains an Issue
As recently as June, governments in BC, AB, ON and QC (and probably other provinces too) were emphatically directing colleges and universities to plan for a complete return to normal on campus this month, without physical distancing requirements. Some intimated that mask mandates might return from time to time. While CdnPSEs may still be hoping to return students to some classrooms at almost full capacity, most seem to recognize that large events, full lecture theatres, and even full offices for campus staff are dangerous right now. Many colleges have indicated that they will offer employees flexible WFH options, and some provincial and regional PHOs are urging it.
Of course, there remain some outspoken antivaxxers and champions of personal liberty at all cost. Parents in Arizona are menacing principals with zip ties over COVID19 quarantines. Protesters are dogging Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail, and rallying outside hospitals, giving them an outsized presence in the public eye. In reality, only about one-tenth of people in BC, QC and Atlantic Canada strongly oppose proof of vaccination requirements, although that rises to 18% in MB and SK and 20% in AB. Health professionals, already struggling with overwork and PTSD, are frustrated by the selfishness of antivaxxers, and how limited resources are being overwhelmed by those who refused to protect themselves against COVID19. Florida governor Ron DeSantis is perhaps the poster child for anti-science stubbornness: though a state judge has ruled it unconstitutional, DeSantis has nonetheless withheld funding from school districts that imposed mask mandates.
“I think it’s the ultimate selfishness that individuals choose not to vaccinate themselves. And I think they don’t realize they are too arrogant to understand that we live in a society where we all have to make sacrifices.” – Steven Fedder, emergency physician, Richmond BC
It Ain’t Over
Clearly, the pandemic waves will continue through the Fall and into Winter, and vaccination efforts will continue – both to reach the vaccine hesitant, and to get a third dose booster shot to the rest of us. WFH options, efforts to de-densify campus, mandatory mask policies and proof-of-vaccination to access residence halls, athletic facilities and other high-risk environments will continue for at least another year. The WHO has announced it will likely switch to constellations, once it has used up the Greek alphabet to designate emerging COVID19 variants. (With Mu, we’re halfway there.) As Politico put it, we just “can’t turn the corner on COVID”; the pandemic will take time to wane, as COVID19 becomes a less disruptive, endemic disease.
“For the indefinite future, fighting the pandemic is more like a tug of war than an epidemiological ground war.” – Joanne Kenen, executive healthcare editor, Politico
I’d have to say that those who argued early in the pandemic that COVID19 would be a flash in the pan appear to have been proven wrong.
I spent an inordinate amount of time tracking every public mention I could find of confirmed COVID19 cases associated with CdnPSE campuses in the 2020-21 academic year. It was certainly revealing, but ultimately said more about institutional transparency than actual spread in the campus community.
In the past few weeks there have been some occasional cases of COVID19 announced by CdnPSEs, such as these at Laurier, McMaster, Olds College, Trent, and uWaterloo. Rather than tracking each and every occurrence in the 2021-22 academic year, though, I’ll simply report major or significant outbreaks. With most institutions implementing a rapid testing regime, we can expect plenty of positives – and I don’t think I have the determination to track them all. With any luck, most will be mild or even asymptomatic, since such a high percentage of the campus community are fully vaxxed.
Again, if you want the blow-by-blow details since March, you can of course consult the Insider Recap on Vaccination Policies. One thing that remains uneven across the country is the implementation of campus vaccine mandates, although I think a consensus is clearly forming.
The CdnPSE Consensus?
I’ve now tracked 95 CdnPSEs that have mandated either COVID19 testing, or vaccination, from everyone wishing to step foot on campus this Fall. Almost all ONpses have made vaccination mandatory on campus, and most are eliminating the loophole of rapid testing except as an interim measure, or for those with legitimate medical exemptions. The federal Liberals are promising legal protection for businesses that require proof of vaccination. In ABpse and much of BCpse we’re seeing rapid testing being made mandatory instead, with an exemption for the fully vaxxed, which in practice achieves pretty similar results. The most regressive campus policies include a range of religious or “ethical” grounds for exemption, and in some of the most rural and remote areas, smaller institutions may be able to get by with merely a mandatory mask policy. But thankfully, I don’t think we see CdnPSE leaders anywhere arguing that the pandemic is past, or that we can attempt a return to normal this month.
Since my last summary on Friday, there have been a few even-more-last-minute announcements from CdnPSE. Here are the overall trends…
More Vax Mandates
Canada West athletics announced a proof of vaccination policy on Friday, requiring first doses by Sep 9 and 2nd doses by Oct 17. Briercrest College (SK) is making COVID19 testing mandatory for campus access, including those who are vaxxed. Booth UC (MB) announced Aug 26 that it will require everyone on campus to be fully vaxxed, students by Sep 2 and employees by Oct 31. (WFH continues, and all classes are online/remote this term.) Sault College released its vax policy, approved Thursday, requiring individuals to provide proof they are fully vaxxed by Oct 31, or obtain a COVID19 test. Laurentian U also approved its vax policy on Thursday, requiring full vaccination or an approved exemption and negative COVID19 test after Oct 15. On Friday afternoon at 4pm, Nipissing U released its vaccine mandate policy: anyone coming to campus must attest to at least 1 dose by Sep 7, and 2 doses by Oct 18. After Oct 29, proof of both doses must be uploaded through the Nipissing Safe app.
Closing Vax Loopholes
Many CdnPSEs have moved from a self-declaration or “honour system” approach to reporting vax status have since clarified that they will require proof of vaccination to be uploaded, typically through the employee/student portal or a campus safety app. UBC clarified on Saturday morning that it will require vax proof from all 90,000 members of the campus community. (More details are promised for today.) St Lawrence College has amended its policy, which originally required attestations on the honour system, to require proof of vaccination. In response to pressure from staff and faculty unions, UPEI announced Aug 31 that it will require proof of vaccination, rather than merely an attestation. Other CdnPSEs are eliminating the option of rapid testing for those who simply choose not to be vaccinated. Cambrian College will no longer accept a negative test result alone, without an approved exemption, for access to campus after Oct 16. Centennial College has clarified that it will require proof of vaccination, and that exemptions will be “very few” based on medical needs or creed/religious reasons.
Medical Exemptions Only?
Some CdnPSEs have announced that only medical exemptions will be considered for their vax mandates, further closing the loopholes for ethical or conscientious objectors. (My guess is that a human rights claim for exemptions under other protected reasons might still be accommodated, but I’m no lawyer – it may be sufficient to offer an online learning alternative.) When uWinnipeg unveiled its vax mandate last month, it indicated only that those “who cannot be vaccinated due to health reasons will be exempt from the mandate, upon medical verification.” Seneca College says it “will respect medical exemptions upon presentation of appropriate documentation.” As of Nov 5, Fanshawe College now says anyone coming to campus must either have proof of full vaccination or an approved medical exemption, plus proof of a negative COVID19 test within 72 hours. (In an earlier email to students, Fanshawe made it clear that “there are no faith-based or Human Rights Code related exemptions allowed, based on direction from the Ontario Government.”) Naturally, physicians are starting to see more demand for “unfounded” medical exemptions. Ontario’s Ministry of Health says there are only 2 valid medical exemptions from COVID19 vaccinations: an allergic reaction to a component of the vaccine (which must be confirmed by a specialist), or an incident of myocarditis or pericarditis after the first vax dose.
Vax Passport Apps
Particularly in Ontario, where the government directed ONpses to have a vaccine policy in place by today, there has been a scramble to launch forms and apps to facilitate the process of uploading proof of vaccination. Just a few examples: Fleming College requires vaccination proof to be uploaded thorough the FlemingSafe app. McMaster U employees and students can upload proof of vaccination to the MacCheck digital tool starting today. Algonquin College employees and learners can upload proof of vaccination within the latest version of the AC Mobile Safety app.
Online in the Interim
With last-minute announcements of mandates for vaccination or rapid testing, many CdnPSEs are hitting the logistical wall when it comes to sourcing sufficient rapid tests, or developing apps to permit attestations or uploading proof of vaccination. Most have introduced a “grace period” to allow time for the campus community to get vaxxed, or provide evidence thereof. Others are exercising even more caution, pivoting to online delivery of all classes as a temporary measure until the campus community has time to get double-vaxxed. For example: Alberta U of the Arts has moved all courses online for the first 2 weeks of class. Brock U has determined that all courses will be online only Sep 7-12. All York U classes will be delivered online or remotely between Sep 7-12.
A Few Exceptions
There continue to be some CdnPSEs, mostly smaller campuses in smaller communities, that are not planning to implement a vaccine disclosure or rapid testing protocol. Acadia U reiterated Friday that it is using a “voluntary approach” to COVID19 vaccination. I mentioned last week that BC’s 10 community colleges have decided they have no authority to add precautions beyond those mandated by the PHO. That includes Okanagan College, which says it is recommending vaccination, but will not be requiring disclosures on campus (except for residences, restaurants and fitness centres, which are covered under the BC proof-of-vaccination program). Otherwise, the CdnPSE holdouts include (to the best of my knowledge) Alberta’s Bow Valley and Olds Colleges, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology, and Manitoba’s Steinbach Bible College.
As students, faculty and staff return to campuses around the world, and we wrestle with masking, distancing, hand hygiene, rapid testing and vaccination mandates, we can be forgiven for asking ourselves whether it’s all really worth the effort…
U Notre Dame (Indiana) made plenty of headlines last year for president John Jenkins’ stubborn refusal to pivot to remote instruction. (He wrote a high-profile op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing that reopening the institution was “Worth the Risk.”) Then just 2 weeks into term, UND had to suspend F2F classes in response to a COVID19 outbreak with almost 150 cases. Then president Jenkins attended Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation celebration at the White House – unmasked – and came down with COVID19 as a result. And then thousands of UND football fans overwhelmed security when the “Fighting Irish” beat Clemson.
2020 was a rough year to insist on the traditional campus experience. No doubt that’s why UND was the 2nd US college to announce a vaccine mandate back in April 2021. And in May, it asked students to reflect on the value of being present together on campus…
Was it Worth It?
In this well-produced 7-min video, Notre Dame students reflect on “the toughest part about being here” last year, the uncertainty, anxiety, and challenges of quarantine. (Most of the students were put in quarantine, some in tragic circumstances.) Some had panic attacks, were depressed and exhausted. (If you only watch the first couple of minutes, you’re left assuming the answer to the question, “was it worth it?”, would be “no.”) Students felt the high point of the year, “in a semester of pain and sorrow and hardships,” was the Clemson game. “We really needed a win.” They also describe the healing effect of attending church together, dancing together, walking along the lake or sitting on a park bench.
So, “was it worth it to be here?” Naturally, all the students say “without a doubt yes.” The Notre Dame marketers always produce top-notch videos, and they’re often emotional and moving. Obviously, I’m not sure I can agree with them about the 2020-21 year, but I can appreciate the sentiment as we gear up for what we hope will be a much safer, but still challenging, 2021-22. YouTube
As always, thanks for reading.
I hope your week – and for most of you, the return to campus – goes smoothly! Above all, as I’ve said some 300 times in the past 18 months…
Stay safe and be well!
All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.