Friday, December 10, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and TGIF!
Today is UN Human Rights Day, and also National Lager Day – though I rather doubt students need a formal occasion.
Most CdnPSEs have shifted gears this week from classes to exams – although uManitoba students faced a confusing mix of “overlapping schedules” (some courses in exams, others still in class), thanks to the 35-day faculty strike which finally ended Tuesday. (All this and Omicron too? UM students have my sympathy.)
Institutions across Nova Scotia closed yesterday due to winter weather conditions – although StFX had at least 59 other reasons to close this week (see below). Of course, worse than being stuck outdoors in a Canadian winter because of snow drifts across your porch, is being stuck outside because a massive AWS server outage turned your smart locks ‘dumb’…
I’m working hard at getting into the holiday spirit, and building another big collection of higher ed holiday greeting videos, but more are still appearing so I won’t try to identify the best of them just yet. (I will, however, whet your appetite…)
In the meantime, I promised to keep you apprised of emerging news about the Omicron variant, and unfortunately there’s plenty. Outbreaks are impacting exams at StFX, athletics at Queen’s, and WFH at Western – and causing Ontario to consider the unthinkable again. January looks way more uncertain than it did just 3 days ago, and uSaskatchewan is talking about making 3 doses of vaccine mandatory on campus…
I spilled plenty of ink about the pandemic and the Omicron variant in Monday’s “Airports, Aerosols and Anime” and Tuesday’s “COVID Throws a Spiky Curve Ball,” and predicted what it would mean for CdnPSE in January. (If you missed them, please take a look, especially at the latter.) In a nutshell: Omicron will be driving a 5th wave, it’s already present across Canada and the world, it’s airborne and considerably more contagious than Delta, and it slices though a mere 2-doses of vaccine like butter. While we may not have solid scientific data until year-end, CdnPSE should be planning on contingencies for January rather than assuming optimistically that we can return to campus.
I’ll continue watching as evidence solidifies, but you can assume that things remain unchanged unless I provide more updates. What’s emerged since Tuesday only reinforces my forecast…
Omicron has now been confirmed in 57 countries, while COVID19 case counts in South Africa continue to skyrocket (+255% in the past 7 days, to ~20,000 per day). In addition to Omicron cases reported earlier in BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, cases have now also been confirmed in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Yukon. (And where it hasn’t been spotted yet, it could be “Stealth Omicron” – see below.)
“Even if the severity is equal or potentially even lower… hospitalizations will increase if more people become infected, and there will be a time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an increase in the incidence of deaths.” – WHO weekly epidemiological report
X-Ring Outbreak at StFX
Dec 3’s X-Ring ceremony at St Francis Xavier U, and some unofficial celebrations in its wake, have sparked an outbreak of at least 59 confirmed cases of COVID19 – most of them very mild, and among young, fully-vaxxed students. An estimated 2,000 extra people were on campus for the ceremony, and many have returned home to other provinces since then, including Ontario and PEI. (StFX says that proof of vaccination was required for the ceremony itself, although there is no vax mandate on campus.) The PHO has issued 37 exposure notifications for venues on- and off-campus. StFX cancelled classes Tuesday, and exams scheduled to begin yesterday were delayed an extra day by bad weather. The faculty union has advised instructors they can opt to hold exams online “if they don’t feel safe in person.” StFX adds that faculty can also consider take-home exams, while students who are uncomfortable can postpone writing in-person exams until January. The provincial PHO says in-person exams can be held safely, but some students are currently required to isolate and would be unable to do so. (No word yet on whether Omicron or Delta strains are responsible – but considering the number of fully-vaxxed cases, Omicron is likely involved.) Globe & Mail | Saltwire | StFX | Sudbury.com | CityNews | CBC | Toronto Star | Global | The Coast
“We followed all of the guidelines. We believed we could pull together a safe environment for our students and supporters. It is with great regret that we’re in this position now.” – Andrew Hakin, president, St Francis Xavier U
Athletics Outbreak at Queen’s
Queen’s U suspended all varsity athletics training yesterday until further notice, after an outbreak of 10 cases was declared Dec 7. “Everyone involved in varsity sports at Queen’s is fully vaccinated,” and the outbreak is “not directly related to sports competition or on-campus facilities.” Queen’s has reported 43 cases of COVID19 since Nov 22. The local PHO reports one confirmed case of Omicron in the region, and 32 specimens are being tested. Kingstonist | Global
More Cases on Campus
Despite the outbreaks elsewhere, London Ontario is still home to the largest probably cluster of Omicron cases in Canada (50 and counting). Since Tuesday, the outbreak at Western’s Saugeen-Maitland Hall residence has risen to 17 cases, and Fanshawe College’s Merlin House residence is at 5 cases. On Wednesday, Loyalist Collegereported a third case on its campus, and yesterday Cambrian College reported another case on its Barrydowne campus. McMaster U reported a staff case on Dec 9 and a student case on Dec 8.
Measuring Vaccine Escape
It is becoming increasingly clear that 2 doses of Pfizer will no longer protect against catching and transmitting COVID19, thanks to the Omicron variant. A preliminary preprint study released Tuesday by researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute (based on lab tests of blood from just 12 people) found that Omicron could partially evade the protection provided by 2 doses of Pfizer. (This was “a very large drop” in neutralization of Omicron. “The effects are not subtle, so it’s likely to be correct.”) Even worse, unpublished research at UH Frankfurt found that, in the lab, an antibody response was “not even measurable” 6 months after a 2-dose regimen of Pfizer’s vaccine, and even 3 doses of Pfizer resulted in 37x lower antibody response to Omicron than to Delta. (There is some reason to hope that 3 doses will protect against severe disease, at least. “Omicron may be vaccine-resistant, but it is not booster-proof.”) Pfizer/BioNTech themselves reported Tuesday that only a 3-dose regime could neutralize Omicron in the lab. Although work began Nov 26 on a new, Omicron-specific vaccine, BioNTech has made it clear that it would take until March to make available, and considerably longer to distribute it broadly. Sydney Morning Herald | Reuters | Buzzfeed | CBC | National Post | CTV | Global | Washington Post | Pfizer
“The data suggests this is a more transmissible virus with significant degrees of immune escape, that is going to render the vaccines less effective, and most of the monoclonal antibodies ineffective, coming in a surge upon a surge at a really challenging time.” – Jacob Lemieux, Harvard Medical School
To reiterate, preliminary research on antibody responses in the lab is not going to tell us what human immune response will be like in the wild. I warned on Tuesday that this is only the beginning of “a deluge of unfiltered information – press releases, preprint servers, some people making opinions” before a scientific consensus emerges, likely in January.
Here Comes “Stealth” Omicron
As if it weren’t bad enough that the Omicron variant can spread through the air even better than Delta, evade vaccine protection and reinfect us – it has a close genetic relative that is even tougher to detect. Authorities in Queensland, Australia report an “Omicron-like” sub-lineage of COVID19 (BA.2) in a traveller from South Africa that does not provide an “S-gene dropout” in the standard PCR test. (This sub-lineage has only 14 of the 30 gene changes found in Omicron, BA.1.) Explains Deakin U chair of epidemiology Catherine Bennett, this is not new: “70% or so of Omicron variants don’t have the S-gene dropout.” Unfortunately, this means many jurisdictions will underestimate the number of Omicron cases, if they do not perform adequate genetic sequencing of samples. Cases of “Omicron-like” have been detected in South Africa, Australia, and – Canada. The Guardian | Sydney Morning Herald | Newsweek
Thanks to Omicron and its ilk, we can no feel “bullet-proof” after 2 doses of vaccine. If we return to dining out or meeting on campus without physical distancing and masks, we may not personally face deadly consequences, but we could readily become carriers and spread Omicron to the vulnerable. And with Omicron spreading up to 3x faster than Delta, it could overwhelm our healthcare system in weeks.
Higher ed responses to Omicron are only beginning, as many CdnPSEs are trying to stay the course pending more solid scientific data. But my advice to prepare contingency plans certainly seems to be borne out by some initial repercussions…
As Omicron spreads worldwide, governments are reinstating health precautions. Denmark is reimposing restrictions. With 568 cases of Omicron confirmed to date, England is reverting to “Plan B,” encouraging more WFH, imposing mask mandates in more indoor public places, and requiring vax passports for large venues. In the face of escalating COVID19 cases (and concerned about the potential for rising hospitalizations to follow), Ontario will reportedly announce today that it will not be dropping the vaccine passport next month, and instead will start requiring QR codes. In Ontario, several PHOs are encouraging WFH and smaller private gatherings, effective immediately. Premier Doug Ford is meeting with his cabinet this morning to consider potential announcements over the holiday break, like school closures or reverting to stage 3 of the Ontario reopening plan. Health minister Christine Elliott hopes to have more data “within a week” before making any moves. (Quebec, on the other hand, assures us that 1,807 new daily cases was all part of its plan, and is doubling the limit on gathering sizes to 20 in time for Christmas. Mon Dieu!)
“Cases continue to rise substantially, even without Omicron. To flatten the curve, we need to reduce transmission by increasing vaccination and public health measures.” – Ontario Science Table, Update on COVID19 Projections, Dec 7
Campuses Mandate 3 Shots
The most forward-looking US colleges have always been a bit ahead of CdnPSE, so it’s no surprise to see several institutions already announcing that they will mandate COVID19 vaccine booster shots for students and staff who are eligible, in the spring semester. In Massachusetts, these institutions include uMass Amherst, Emerson College, Boston College, Northeastern U, and Bentley U. Harvard is strongly urging staff and students to get their booster shots, but has not yet decided about making it mandatory. uSaskatchewan has announced that students will need to provide proof of their 3rd dose as soon as they are eligible, “to continue to be considered fully vaccinated.” (And rumour has it now that Israel is considering 4th booster shots for all citizens.) Boston Globe | True North
Western sounds Note of Caution
As up to 100 cases of Omicron circulate in London and an outbreak of COVID19 has occurred in a campus residence, Western U announced yesterday that it will move some employees back to WFH starting Monday, in order to decrease the number of people on campus. (In-person exams are proceeding as planned.) In the words of acting provost Sarah Prichard, though, “at this time we plan to return to campus on January 3, 2022. If direction from the health unit or our ministry should require a change of plans, we will communicate those as soon as possible.” Western | London Free Press
Lockdowns to Come?
uToronto epidemiologist Colin Furness told CTV National News that the Omicron variant will trigger a “significant escalation” of cases, and could force schools, restaurants and other businesses to shut down again. “I don’t see how we’re going to keep a lid on things,” he said, and urged governments to accept that COVID19 is primarily airborne: “stop pretending that bits of plexiglas and a blue gaping surgical mask is enough to protect anyone against anything.” CTV
“Stop pretending that bits of plexiglas and a blue gaping surgical mask is enough to protect anyone against anything. Because it isn’t.” – Colin Furness, epidemiologist, uToronto
Since we’ve been watching labour actions in CdnPSE (and elsewhere in the world) as a harbinger of things to come, I should share some updates before the winter break…
uManitoba Classes Resume
As the strike by faculty at uManitoba dragged on for more than a month, the province’s PC government finally repealed its “draconian” 2017 public-sector wage-freeze legislation 2 weeks ago, while mediator Arne Peltz blamed the union for prolonging the strike and student suffering. (In response, the faculty association blamed Peltz himself.) Throughout the strike, 2,576 courses continued to be taught by non-unionized instructors while 3,644 others were suspended, and the university revised its academic calendar several times. Once the union ratified the tentative agreement, classes finally resumed Dec 7 – but as a result, the end of most Fall term classes was pushed back into late January. While some exams continued on schedule this month, those for delayed courses will be compressed into 72 hours in late January. The Winter 2022 term will begin Jan 24, and reading week will become a single “reading day.” UM Today
Strike Vote for 24 ON Colleges
Ontario College faculty are voting on a strike mandate today and tomorrow, as OPSEU and the College Employer Council remain at an impasse – not over wages and benefits, but over IP rights and partnerships that license curriculum to for-profit partners. The CEC outlines the outstanding differences over marking workload, stability for part-time faculty, EDI, dental benefits, and more. (It’s obviously one-sided, dismissing OPSEU’s position on IP as “not aligning with the Copyright Act” and its workload proposal as “usurping work from the joint workload taskforce” which CEC is proposing, but which doesn’t yet exist.) Faculty at all 24 public colleges could walk out next month, but first OPSEU says they would consider work-to-rule. The union favours binding arbitration, while the CEC has proposed “voluntary binding final offer selection interest arbitration.” (Expect things to get messy.) CTV | London Free Press | CEC
Concordia U Edmonton
Faculty at Concordia U of Edmonton could be “the first in Alberta to go on strike” after a Dec 1 strike vote was 90% in favour. (Faculty collective bargaining in Alberta was only recognized under the Labour Relations Code in 2017.) The biggest issues at CUE include job security, IP, and a “highly unusual” change in workload: increasing research expectations without reducing teaching loads accordingly. CUE has filed a bad faith bargaining complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board, arguing that negotiations “have only begun bargaining a fraction of the 41 total articles in the collective agreement.” CUEFA could call a strike anytime within 120 days, but the university also has approval to lock them out. (Some observers believe that uAlberta, uLethbridge, and Mount Royal U could also be heading toward strike mandates.) CBC | CTV | CUE
I can’t very well send you into the weekend with that bleak pile of news, now can I?
Worldwide, higher ed institutions are releasing their holiday greeting videos, and already I’ve collected 88 on my 2021 Holiday Videos playlist. (Do let me know if I’ve missed yours!) Sometime next week I hope to curate my annual roundup of the best of those videos, but if you desperately need a pick-me-up, you can take a look yourself now.
Meanwhile, here’s 2 CdnPSE examples to whet your appetite…
Sugar-Plum Stress Balls
uToronto Engineering student groups collaborated on this 2-min video set to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” A bright blue stress ball bounces across campus to the music, intercepted by various students, chased by a squirrel, airlifted by a drone, bandied about by robots, and ultimately caught by Engineering dean Christopher Yip. YouTube
’Twas the First Day of Classes
uWaterloo Environment dean Jean Andrey has participated in many memorable videos over the years, and this year’s 4-min holiday greeting sets her review of the year’s accomplishments to the classic poetic style of Clement Moore’s “Visit from St Nicholas.” As she sits on a Zoom call in fuzzy slippers, Andrey talks to UW faculty (in rhyming couplets!) about their accomplishments in this “strangest of years,” faced with a “Grinch of a virus.” (It’s much stickier, and more fun, than most annual review videos! Kudos to writer/producer Dheana Ramsay, the Faculty’s senior alumni advancement officer.) YouTube
As always, thanks for reading!
Have a great weekend – and if you’re heading off for your holidays, I hope they’re peaceful, joyful, safe and above all restorative! We’ve all had a trying, turbulent 20 months, and it looks like we’re going to need all the strength we can muster for January 2022!
Stay safe and be well,
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