Tuesday, February 15, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, whether you’re celebrating Singles Awareness, Gumdrops, Squidward or Hippos!
Throughout the COVID19 pandemic, government and PSE leaders have been forced to play politics, managing the sociological factors even more than the epidemiological ones. Now, as society starts to tentatively reopen after the Omicron wave, the positions of these leaders are diverging because of quite different accountabilities.
Many provincial premiers are trying to appease rural, blue-collar voters and small business owners who have been vocal opponents of mask and vax mandates, to the point of picketing hospitals and blockading border crossings. In the past week, those politicians have been scrambling to announce an end to the pandemic, ASAP. Instead of raising the threshold for vaccine passports to 3 doses, they are opting to abandon restrictions entirely, likely several weeks too early.
PSE leaders, on the other hand, are caught in the middle, trying to satisfy their political masters while also managing the anxieties, protests and legal challenges from employees and students alike. (The state of emergency in Ontario isn’t the pandemic anymore, but the protesting truckers. Campuses in Ottawa and Windsor are stuck in the middle of that, too.)
CdnPSE leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place…
Yesterday, I started my updates on provincial and PSE announcements with a look at the current situation in BC. Now we turn to the western provinces where voters are most opposed to pandemic restrictions, and most eager to declare “victory” over the virus. (I mentioned yesterday a recent Leger poll that found Albertans angriest about public health restrictions.) Facing an imminent leadership review and growing public outrage, AB premier Kenney tried to end the pandemic last week by fiat…
Kenney Pushes for Normal
Last week, COVID19 hospitalizations in Alberta were still at their highest point in the entire pandemic – but anticipating a plateau, premier Jason Kenney rushed to kill the “Restriction Exemption Program” (vax passport) with just one day’s notice, and he announced that all WFH orders, mask mandates and capacity limits will end Mar 1. (Masks were no longer required in AB K-12 as of yesterday.) PSE minister Demetrios Nicolaides reinforced this policy, writing a “gently coercive” letter to ABpse board chairs, advising that they can fully return to “pre-pandemic delivery” as of Mar 1: “It is my expectation that all of [ABpses] will align their COVID19 policies… I am eager to see students returning to in-person learning without masking and proof of vaccination requirements this March.” Likewise, the Education minister wrote school boards last week to insist that they won’t have authority to impose mask requirements, and Jason Kenney has threatened to amend legislation if municipalities attempt to impose their own health measures. The breakneck speed of AB’s rollback has left BC ski resort operators worrying about conflicts with Albertan tourists over vax and mask mandates there: “they think because they’re outside, everything’s relaxed.”
“I expect AB institutions to align their COVID19 policies… I am eager to see students returning to in-person learning without [masking or] proof of vaccination requirements this March.” – Demetrios Nicolaides, minister of Advanced Education, Alberta
Of course, we’ve seen premier Kenney prematurely fly the pandemic “mission accomplished” banner before – such as declaring “the best summer ever” last year. His CMOH said just days ago that it was too soon to shift to an endemic response – but the UCP caucus has been growing restless, and Kenney faces a leadership review on Apr 9. NDP leader Rachel Notley accuses Kenney of being “bent to the will of criminals” blockading Alberta’s southern border. Political considerations are clearly trumping medical concerns, and accelerating the reopening timeline.
“The threat of COVID19 to public health no longer outweighs the hugely damaging impact of health restrictions on our society, on people’s mental health, on their emotional wellbeing, on our broader social health. Now is the time to begin learning to live with COVID.” – Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta
Academia Pushes Back
Many ABpse students and health experts are alarmed by the recent announcements. The Alberta Federation of Labour is pursuing an injunction to extend mandatory masks in schools. In response to the minister’s letter, the UofA Students’ Union retorted that 80% of students do not support his decision: “nobody is asking for this.” Alberta doctors are calling the government’s move “premature,” “wishful thinking,” and “COVID denial.” One expert estimates the move is “about 3 weeks too early.” 25 uAlberta public health and infectious disease experts have sent an open letter to the premier and UCP officials, calling the approach “reckless” and warning that “on-again, off-again restrictions only serves to prolong the course of this pandemic.” Immuno-compromised Albertans are “disappointed in humankind,” and are asking, “why are anti-vaxxers getting priority over the sick?”
“Ignoring the evidence and dismissing the concerns and fears of parents, students and educators is a dangerous and irresponsible overstep by the government.” – Open letter from 25 uAlberta health experts
So far, most ABpses have clarified to their campus communities that they were always “out of scope” of the REP, and will work with government – but for now are making no change to campus vax and mask requirements. (Those include uAlberta, AUarts, Bow Valley College, uCalgary, MacEwan U, Medicine Hat College, Mount Royal U, and NAIT.) But uCalgary apparently told students and staff last Thursday that it would drop vax and mask requirements for upcoming semesters. SAIT announced that vaccination will no longer be required on campus, “effective immediately,” and that mask requirements will end Mar 1. Initially, Olds College announced it would likely eliminating vaccine and mask requirements as of Mar 1, but yesterday Olds tweeted that proof of vaccination is no longer required, effective immediately. Expect more announcements in coming days as government “expectations” are made clearer to more ABpses…
Last summer, Saskatchewan followed Alberta’s lead in throwing things wide open. Last Monday, Scott Moe actually made his move before Kenney (although I’m sticking to my west-to-east order here)…
Moe Bows to Public Pressure
Before the end of January, Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe announced that the proof of vaccination system would be eliminated within a month, in response to popular demand: “I think it is time for us as a government to do what Saskatchewan people are asking for.” Medical experts protested that the move was premature, since the Saskatchewan Health Authority was projecting an “overwhelming surge” of hospitalizations still to come. Nurses felt “utter disbelief and abandonment.” Just Thursday, SK hospitals had more COVID19 patients than at any time during the pandemic. Nonetheless, Moe announced that the vax passport would be gone yesterday, and the indoor mask requirement eliminated by month-end. SK school divisions have been told to lift all mask and vax mandates over the next few weeks.
Last Monday, uSaskatchewan was just beginning its return to campus for the Winter term, and president Peter Stoicheff was re-emphasizing the crucial importance that everyone on campus get a booster shot as soon as they are eligible. By Friday, uSask and uRegina were announcing they were softening their campus vax requirements slightly until the end of the term (Apr 8 for uSask, Apr 11 for uRegina). As of yesterday, occasional visitors to campus will no longer need to provide proof of vaccination. Students and staff who are unvaxxed or undeclared will be allowed back on campus, but must conduct rapid antigen tests 3x weekly. Masks will, however, continue to be mandatory indoors until at least Apr 30. Saskatchewan Polytechnic was already allowing people to “test out” of vax requirements on campus, but as of yesterday will no longer require that either. Saskatoon Star-Phoenix | Regina Leader-Post | CBC | Global
“As the need for COVID19 safety measures declines in the province, the unique health and safety challenges facing universities require us to be thorough and deliberate in changing USask measures.” – uSask Pandemic Response and Recovery Team
Not to be left behind her counterparts in AB and SK, Manitoba premier Heather Stefanson was eager to announce an end to restrictions last week as well – although on a much more moderate timeline…
Capitulating to the Convoy?
MB premier Heather Stefanson announced Friday that COVID19 restrictions will be lifted by mid-March, starting with eliminating capacity limits as of today. Proof of vaccination will no longer be required Mar 1, and indoor masks will cease to be mandated Mar 15. NDP leader Wab Kinew, like his counterpart in AB, criticized the move: “This is premier Heather Stefanson giving in to the convoy. This is capitulation.” The provincial nurses’ union said the decision appeared political rather than scientific. Healthcare groups warned that critical shortages of paramedics and backlogs of surgeries need to be addressed before restrictions should be dropped. Doctors Manitoba urged people “to continue following public health COVID19 guidance even if it is no longer reflected in government restriction.” (So far, I haven’t seen any announced changes from uManitoba or other MBpses.) Globe & Mail | CBC
“It’s time for a new normal to begin in Manitoba. We need to end the divisiveness between families, between communities. We need to move forward.” – Heather Stefanson, premier of Manitoba
Things were moving a bit slower in Central Canada – and not just because of highway blockades. Unfortunately, in the past 24 hours premiers Ford and Legault have caved in to pressure as well…
Ontario Follows Suit
Maybe the Ontario government was a day or two behind because it was preoccupied by the state of emergencyover trucker convoys in Ottawa and at major border crossings. Health minister Christine Elliot said last week that “we have no plans, currently, to drop the passport vaccination situation or masking.” Capacity limits were eased somewhat last month, when it was announced that more measures will be lifted Feb 21 and Mar 14. By last Thursday, rumours were flying that premier Doug Ford was quietly considering accelerating the reopening timeline, “amid pressure from local and provincial politicians.” Sure enough, yesterday Ford announced that Ontario would accelerate the next step in reopening by 4 days, and eliminate all capacity restrictions, and the vaccine certificate system, on Mar 1. (Masking requirements will remain “for just a little bit longer.”) With just 2 weeks between each step, there won’t really be time to assess the impact on case counts or hospitalizations.
“I stood at this very podium and promised you that these tools would only be used for as long as they were absolutely necessary and not one day longer. The removal of these measures has always been our objective.” – Doug Ford, premier of Ontario
A coalition of Ontario children’s hospitals is urging the government to be cautious about lifting masking requirements in K-12 schools, due to low vaccination rates. PSE students in Ontario have been pushing againstthe return to F2F instruction (most recently at McMaster, uWaterloo, and Humber College), while faculty associations at Brock and Laurier are still concerned about the safety of a return to campus, arguing for online options and N95 masks. So far, Mohawk College has announced that it is “aware” of yesterday’s announcement but that “the announcement will not affect Mohawk’s academic plans for the remainder of the Winter semester.” uWaterloo’s president and provost called it “encouraging signs that indicate our current plan to cautiously return to more in-person experiences is on an appropriate trajectory,” and noted that some dining and recreation facilities will operate without capacity limits starting Feb 17, and many large classes will change to F2F delivery as of Feb 28. (Proof of vaccination requirements will remain in place throughout the term.)
“Deconfinement” in Quebec
In January, Quebec was still reporting the highest COVID19 death rates in the country, and the government warned its healthcare system was on the brink of collapse. 2 weeks later, premier François Legault announced restrictions would start easing gradually, explaining that “we’re all aware many Quebecers are fed up.” WFH will cease to be mandatory Feb 28, and most COVID19 rules, aside from mask requirements and vax passports, will be lifted by mid-March. And yet… just on Friday, Health minister Christian Dubé was musing that the vax passport might be suspended temporarily, until the next COVID19 wave. And last night, premier Legault was meeting with PHOs, apparently to get their consent to eliminate the pass just as soon as possible. Legault said an announcement could come later today.
Maritime premiers clearly wanted to join their prairie counterparts by making some “good news” announcements last week, but they were far more cautious in their timelines…
Larger Gatherings in NB
New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs announced last week that the province will move to “Level 1” of its COVID19 Winter Plan this Friday, Feb 18, removing many limits on gatherings and returning many venues to full capacity. (Vax requirements in restaurants, and indoor mask requirements, will continue.) About 350 students from STU, UNB and NBCC have been petitioning for a delay in F2F classes, although they began a week ago.
3 Month Plan in NS
Last Thursday, Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston announced that COVID19 restrictions would begin easing yesterday, in 3 phases of about one month each. NS Cancer Care is warning that surgical backlogs could take “several years” to clear. Mount St Vincent U responded to the premier’s announcement by indicating that indoor and outdoor events will again be permitted on campus, starting yesterday, at 50% capacity (with proof of vaccination and masks). MSVU staff should plan to transition back to a “full on-campus presence” by Feb 28.
“You’re tired. We are too. Everyone is tired of COVID. But COVID has proven to be a formidable opponent.” – Tim Houston, premier of Nova Scotia
2 Month Plan in PEI
Prince Edward Island premier Dennis King announced last week that pandemic restrictions would begin to ease Feb 17, and that gathering limits and mask requirements might be completely gone by Apr 7. “This is not a declaration that COVID is over, or that COVID will disappear, or that we are standing here saying mission accomplished. COVID is still with us and it will be with us.”
Newfoundland & Labrador is taking an even more cautious approach…
Not the Time in NL
Newfoundland & Labrador saw COVID19 hospitalizations hit their peak last week, but nonetheless loosened restrictions on small gatherings and sports events this past Saturday, and allowed restaurants, gyms, churches and other venues to open at 50% capacity. Premier Andrew Furey explicitly told the media last week, however, that the province is not considering an end to vaccine or mask mandates “any time soon.” The NLVaxPass “won’t last forever” but “the time to pull the plug is not now.” So far, Memorial U’s vax mandate has deregistered 25 students, and put 15 unvaxxed employees out on unpaid leave (just 3 of them faculty). Students have mixed feelings about the return to campus, as they do in most of the country.
So to sum up…
CdnPSE seems to be settling into a “new normal” after the Omicron wave, and the epidemiological situation seems likely to continue improving into the Spring and Summer. The only worrisome wild card, as always, is just WHEN the next COVID19 variant will emerge that is even better at evading our immunity, and whether it proves virulent enough to threaten our healthcare system.
But to be cautiously optimistic, it’s also possible that the next waves will be even more “mild” than Omicron, as we all accumulate 3 and 4 doses of vaccine. Maybe – just maybe – the end of this 2-year ordeal is in sight!
What isn’t yet in sight, though, is an end to the self-imposed disaster in Sudbury. I’m preparing an update on developments at Laurentian over the past 3 months, where plenty has been kept out of sight so far… Stay tuned!
Speaking of getting our hopes up for a return to normal, here’s a peppy vid released last week…
Northeastern U (based in Boston but with campuses in Toronto, Vancouver, the UK and elsewhere) released this wordless :45-sec spot last week, under the title “Innovate, Explore, and Dream #LikeAHusky.” (It may be video for a social media ad, or website banner.) It features dynamic music and editing, crowded graduation ceremonies and sports scenes, and superimposed text: “We come from all walks, we come from all places, we speak in our own voices, we pursue our own dreams. The moment we choose Northeastern, we are part of the pack. Wherever we go, we go as Huskies. Rich for our differences, united by purpose.” YouTube
As always, thanks for reading, and please do drop me a line if you spot something innovative affecting the future, or marketing, of higher ed.
Stay safe and warm out there!
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