Eduvation Blog

Flickers of Light in the Darkness

Good morning, and happy National Cat Herders Day! (Perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s also my birthday today…)

I took some time yesterday to escape from the relentlessly intensifying bad news cycle about the Omicron variant, and instead spent 45 minutes re-watching my 3-part Ten with Ken Holiday Special from 2019. Those were simpler, pre-pandemic days, and the episodes really do a great job of selecting out only the best moments from some 500 higher ed holiday videos around the world. (Since I know from the view count that many of you haven’t watched them – consider it a long-overdue look at a much more light-hearted version of me!)

Rewatching that Holiday Special helped get me in the mood for Christmas – even though I’m still working on stocking stuffers and nibbles (and at sorting through this year’s crop of vids – 148 and counting!)

This year, I have been struck by the number of holiday videos emphasizing the spiritual and metaphorical importance of lights flickering in the darkness of the winter solstice, whether on Hannukah menorahs, Christmas trees or Advent wreaths. It seems a particularly apt metaphor for our pandemic experience, and the prospects of small gatherings over the upcoming holidays.

On the other hand, we’re seeing flickers of the Omicron variant on campus, sparking wholesale conflagrations from coast to coast…



Outbreaks & Exams

Omicron outbreaks have been impacting CdnPSE campuses for almost a week now –sometimes on a staggering scale, although with highly-vaxxed populations cases are generally mild. (The real tragedy will follow in several weeks, as the virus impacts the elderly and immunocompromised in the community.) While many institutions are still determined to make it through the exam period unscathed, others no longer have that option. Here’s a recap and updates…


StFX Shuts Down Nova Scotia

By Monday, St Francis Xavier U had sparked 240 cases in the wake of its in-person X-Ring ceremony, accounting for most of the new cases in Nova Scotia. On Friday, the NS PHO announced physical distancing, masking and gathering limits were being reimposed across the province. On Sunday, news broke that president Andy Hakin and 2 other senior leaders had tested positive. By Monday, NS had confirmed 40 cases of Omicron, and the outbreak was linked to new cases of Omicron in New Brunswick and PEI. (NB introduced temporary “level 2” restrictions in response to the Omicron case. Saying the province was “bracing for another hurricane,” PEI PHO Heather Morrison announced new health restrictions there too.) By yesterday, 3 universities in NS had cancelled in-person exams and events (Acadia, Dal, and CBU).  Global  |  CBC

“Here we are entering the second Christmas of the pandemic and the numbers are the highest since the third wave.” Robert Strang, CMOH, Nova Scotia


“Like with Delta, we were racing the train. Unfortunately, the train has arrived in New Brunswick, so now we’re going to try and keep it from running over us.”Dorothy Sherphard, New Brunswick health minister



Dal Cancels In-Person Exams

On the weekend, Dalhousie U reported 8 “presumptive” cases of COVID19, including 5 students in 2 campus residences. On Monday, Dal reported 13 confirmed cases and 32 presumptive ones, and announced an end to in-person exams effective Tuesday. Faculty and staff were encouraged to WFH and “be prepared to do so until the new year.” Students who have tested positive and are isolating will likely “be unable to travel home leading up to and potentially including the December break.”  CBC  |  Dal


Ripples through the Maritimes

Yesterday, Mount St Vincent U reported a campus case, and Cape Breton U reported 3 campus exposures, adding that they “expect that we may see more connected cases in the coming days.” (On Monday, CBUcancelled in-person exams “out of an abundance of caution.”) Mount Allison U reported 5 cases yesterday, and cancelled in-person exams beginning today. MtA also “strongly encouraged” faculty and staff to WFH until the new year, and students to return home for the holiday break “as soon as possible.”


124 Cases at uVic

uVictoria had at least 30 cases in the wake of 2 off-campus parties for business students and varsity athletes. By Sunday, uVic was cancelling all in-person exams without notice, asking instructors to move them online or to another format. Yesterday, the “cluster” (I would call it an “outbreak”) had grown to 124 cases at uVic, and 4 of them were already confirmed as Omicron.  The Martlet  |  National Post  |  Globe & Mail  |  Toronto Star  |  Daily Hive  |  Global  |  Victoria News  |  Nanaimo News Bulletin  |  uVic News

“These are students that haven’t been taking courses together, they’re coming from all parts of our campus, and then they’re in there for 3 hours.”Susan Lewis, acting vice-provost, uVictoria



Rugby Spread Omicron Nationally

BC CMOH Bonnie Henry says the uVic outbreak was in part fuelled by a rugby tournament with Queen’s U “that has sadly spread Omicron to communities and university communities across the country.” (For their part, UBC and SFU intend to continue with in-person exams as planned. Says UBC: “the issues faced by other universities are unique to them.”) The national rugby championship tournament, held Nov 24-28 at Queen’s, also involved teams from uVic, uGuelph, uCalgary, Concordia, Dalhousie, RMC – and yes, UBC.  Toronto Star  |  CTV


282 Cases at Queen’s

By the weekend, Queen’s U reported 10 cases among varsity athletes, and 135 new cases in its community in a single week. Small outbreaks had been declared in 5 campus residences. By Sunday night, Queen’s announced that all in-person exams would pivot to online or another format, effective immediately. On Monday, Queen’s added another 147 new cases (bringing the total to 282 in a single week – after more typical weeks at one-tenth that level). The Kingstonist estimates that Queen’s alone is responsible for 45% of active cases in the region. Nearby St Lawrence College reported a student case on Monday, and shortly thereafter announced that final exams would shift to alternative delivery effective immediately.


Western Cancels In-Person Exams

By Monday, Western U had 17 cases in Saugeen-Maitland Hall and 8 more in Delaware Hall. All 450 residents were asked to self-monitor for symptoms, but the exam schedule would continue as planned. With exponential case growth in the London region, many of them Omicron, Western announced yesterday that it would move most final exams scheduled for Dec 17-22 online, as a “precautionary measure.” (Exams today and tomorrow will continue in person.) The local PHO is recommending no social gatherings over 10 people, and urging WFH where possible.   London Free Press  |  CBC  |  Global  |  CTV  |  Western News


Other Small Outbreaks

Back on Monday I reported that Fanshawe College had at least 5 cases in its Merlin House residence, and uWindsor 4 cases in its Alumni Hall residence. Since then, a couple of isolated cases have been reported at Canadore College and Laurentian U (sparking a “low-risk exposure” in a gym where exams were being written on Friday).



January Outlook

As Omicron ramps up exponentially, its disruption of exams this month is just the tip of the iceberg: Canada’s hospitals are projecting overwhelming cases next month, based on current information and forecasts. As I’ve been warning for months, a full return to “near-normal” campus experience in January is very unlikely. (Read my summary on Monday, “Wasn’t this Obvious?”, if you missed it.)

Nonetheless, CdnPSE leaders continue to send a range of messages about the prospect of a return to campus next month, depending on the political and epidemiological context…

uGuelph announced earlier this week it was proceeding with exams as planned, and planning a return to “conventional course delivery and in-person instruction” starting Jan 10. “The University is aiming for a physical return to campus for faculty and staff… by Jan 10, 2022. Should the situation change, details will be provided.” (Wastewater testing at uGuelph gave a “high signal” in the Lambton Hall residence on Dec 8. That would give me pause. Plus their rugby players were at that championship in Kingston.)  UG News

uRegina president Jeff Keshen wrote the campus yesterday to acknowledge that 2021 “has been challenging, and at times even gruelling,” but to encourage everyone that “the full University of Regina experience… is within sight.” (I particularly liked his use of light metaphors.) uRegina

“Sometimes it has been difficult to believe that there is a light at the end of what has seemed like a very dark COVID19 tunnel. But as we re-open our campuses more fully to in-person coursework and other activities for the Winter 2022 term, we have reason for a great deal of optimism.”Jeff Keshen, president, uRegina



Other CdnPSEs have started to signal some concern, though, as the implications of Omicron become clearer…

Algonquin College president Claude Brulé told the campus community on Dec 8 to expect a “transitional return to campus” with “gradual resumption of in-person, on-campus activities for the 2022 Winter term and beyond.” Plans remain subject to change: “we continue to monitor all updates from the provincial and federal governments, including those on case counts, the status of the Omicron variant and the emergence of the use of ‘booster’ vaccinations. If policy directives are announced that impact College operations, they will be communicated to all learners and employees.” Algonquin

Carleton U president Benoit-Antoine Bacon warned the campus community back on Dec 1 that emerging variants like Omicron will mean that “caution is warranted… through the virus-friendly winter months,” so the winter term “will see a mix of face-to-face and online learning opportunities to maximize flexibility.” (Flexible and compassionate grading practices will also remain in effect. Good for Carleton!) “Barring a fifth wave or new public health restrictions, we anticipate that we will complete our full return to campus over the summer, well in time for the fall 2022 term.” (I think Carleton has been sounding far more honest and realistic than most CdnPSEs this Fall, even though students are upset by it.)  Carleton

“We understand that 20 months into the pandemic, we are all eager to return to ‘normal,’ but caution is warranted for a little while longer, through the virus-friendly winter months.”Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president, Carleton U


McMaster U president David Farrar wrote the campus community yesterday that “the pandemic continues to evolve at an accelerated pace” and that “while concerns are mounting” there are still many unanswered questions about Omicron. “While our plans for an in-person Winter 2022 term remain in place, we are making some short-term modifications in response to guidance from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer.” Employees are being asked to “work 100% remotely” effective today, and hybrid work plans for Jan 3 “will be paused and begin on Jan 17.” Likewise, classes will be held virtually for the first week in January, and students will be welcomed back to residence Jan 14 instead of Jan 7. “We will continue to monitor the province and our local health unit and will provide additional planning updates early in the new year when we should have a clearer picture of the path the pandemic is taking.”  McMaster

uWaterloo president Vivek Goel (himself a physician and public health researcher) and provost James Rush wrote to employees yesterday that “2021 is ending with a great deal of uncertainty about the future, once again.” To protect in-person learning and exams, “we must limit all non-essential personal contacts” and therefore UW is cancelling in-person gatherings and meetings, and encouraging all employees to WFH where possible.  uWaterloo

“Recent news about the rise of COVID19 cases in Ontario, driven by the emergence of the Omicron variant, means that 2021 is ending with a great deal of uncertainty about the future, once again.”Vivek Goel, president, and James Rush, provost, uWaterloo


Western U says it is “thinking carefully about what the start of the winter term will look like,” is in “close conversation” with the local PHO, and will “aim to communicate any change in plans” by next week. Western also is warning international students of the risk of last-minute border changes: “if you leave Canada, there are no guarantees you will be able to return when classes resume, or that you will be exempt from quarantine.”  Twitter


While some are seeing flickers of hope in the long, dark COVID tunnel, I can’t help considering what they say about light in a tunnel. (You know: it might be the end of the tunnel, or it might be an oncoming freight train.)




Worldwide, higher ed institutions are releasing their holiday greeting videos, and already I’ve collected 148 on my 2021 Holiday Videos playlist. (Do let me know if I’ve missed yours!)  I still hope to curate my annual roundup of the best of those videos, but in the meantime here are a couple more examples that specifically invoke the importance of light in the darkness of winter solstice…


Trent Shines

This 2-min video from Trent U features gorgeous cinematography and soaring music, as we see glowing lights of the Bata Library on a snowy evening, and president Leo Groarke throws an oversized switch to illuminate holiday decorations across campus. Although many are wearing masks while they gather indoors, the overall mood is uplifting. “May your holidays be merry and bright!”  YouTube


Festival of Lights

Elon U (NC) shared a remarkably quick :30-sec video that captures the mood of outdoor celebration as students, staff and their young families enjoy hot chocolate on campus, light paper lanterns and sparklers, and enjoy “lights and luminaries.”  YouTube


Light in the Darkness

Royal Roads U president Philip Steenkamp offers his reflections on the symbolism of light in various cultures at this time of year, for celebrations of Diwali, Hannukah, Kwanzaa and Christmas. “They celebrate community and bring light into the darkest months.” He urges us to share our light, through donations of time and treasure, or simply to lend an ear, and concludes with the words of Persian poet Hafez: “I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” (Thanks for brightening my day!)  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading! I’m trying to publish just as little as possible this month, but the reality is that Omicron is rapidly changing the context in which higher education is operating, for exams this month and of course for January. I’ll do my best to keep you informed!

Stay safe and be well,


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