Tuesday, February 22, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and Happy “Twosday!” (2/22/22)
Also, for most of you, welcome back! Some CdnPSEs were closed Thursday or Friday due to snow and ice, while most enjoyed an extended weekend for Presidents’ Day (in the US), Islander or Heritage Day (in PEI and NS), Louis Riel Day (in MB), or good ole Family Day (in AB and ON). Of course, if you’re on a campus with Reading Week this week, you may be away on vacation too.
As for me, I’m looking forward to gathering (virtually) with my college CMO peeps this afternoon. But first…
It’s been a week since my last Pandemic Précis, so let’s look at how the “new normal” is unfolding…
COVID Hot Spots
Although North America is more fortunate, the Omicron variant is continuing to wreak havoc in some parts of the world. Hong Kong’s reliance on containment and “zero-COVID” policies has come back to haunt it, as it faces a 60-fold spike in infections and overflowing hospitals. Japan is reporting record-level COVID19 fatalities, with 3 straight days exceeding 200 deaths. South Korea has hit a record 100,000+ daily cases. Eastern Europe has seen case counts double recently in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Italy reported 24,408 new cases yesterday and 201 deaths. Brazil has been experiencing a serious surge of COVID19 infections, reporting 108,725 new cases on Saturday alone, and 851 deaths.
Everybody’s Getting It
Once the highly-transmissible Omicron variant hit our shores, it seemed clear that containment and control strategies would be pointless. Sure enough, in the past week it seems everybody’s been coming down with COVID19, from Justin Bieber to Queen Elizabeth. (At 95, the Queen plans to keep working; the 27-year-old pop star has already postponed performances.)
Actually, they’re getting BA.2
The emerging subvariant of Omicron, BA.2, is about 30% more transmissible than Omicron classic, and is starting to spread in Canada – although it is difficult to know just how fast. Last week, we learned that BA.2 is responsible for 10-15% of new cases in the Montréal region. The BC COVID19 modelling group claims BA.2 is responsible for ~35% of cases in Alberta and 12% in Ontario – but could also be up to 99% of cases in Alberta and 34% in Ontario. The BA.2 strain’s increased contagiousness could extend the Omicron wave’s duration, or increase the heights of its case counts (as Denmark is currently seeing). A recent study out of Japan argues that BA.2 is sufficient different from BA.1 that it deserves its own Greek name as a new variant of concern.
“[BA.2] does not necessarily mean a second major Omicron wave will happen; more likely we’ll see a prolonged peak or a shoulder in the Omicron wave.” – Sarah Otto, evolutionary virology prof, UBC
Past the Peak
In much of the northern hemisphere, the Omicron wave seems to be ebbing – although, as a WHO official noted last week, a drop in COVID19 testing is probably exaggerating the trend. Daily case counts and hospitalizations have been steadily declining across the US, from 800,000 daily cases in mid-January to a mere 100,000 on Saturday. “Omicron is starting to run out of people to infect.” Last week, Ontario posted 5 straight days of declining COVID19 hospitalizations, and CMOH Kieran Moore declared “we certainly have the peak behind us.” Chief PHO Theresa Tam reported Friday that Canada seems to be past the peak of the Omicron wave, allowing Canadians “a chance to regain a sense of normalcy.”
“Omicron is starting to run out of people to infect.” – Thomas Russo, infectious disease chief, uBuffalo Jacobs School of Medicine
Much of the world is relaxing health restrictions and aggressively setting about to “learn to live with COVID.” Last Wednesday, Anthony Fauci said it’s time for the US to start “inching back towards normality.” On Thursday, California officially shifted to an endemic approach they call “SMARTER” (Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education and Rx). Switzerland and Norway have lifted almost all pandemic restrictions. Britain’s Boris Johnson plans to exit the pandemic faster than other countries by repealing all COVID19 requirements, including the need for those who test positive to self-isolate. Australia has finally opened its borders to international tourists, while Israel will start allowing unvaxxed tourists as of Mar 1. (And of course, Canadian provinces have been racing each other to declare the pandemic finis too – see below.)
“There is no perfect solution to this… You don’t want to be reckless and throw everything aside, but you’ve got to start inching towards [normalcy].” – Anthony Fauci, infectious disease expert
Canada has been gaining global attention (and not in a good way) for the past 3 weeks as protesters and blockades have thrown border crossings and capital cities into chaos. Now, some of those downtown residents (and parliamentarians) can also start “inching towards normal”…
After the Seige
After 24 days, with national emergency powers, Ottawa Police finally cleared away the ‘Freedom Convoy” in our nation’s capital this weekend, laying 389 charges, towing 79 vehicles, and making 191 arrests. Interim chief Steve Bell said “with every hour” the city is getting closer to “a state of normalcy.” PM Justin Trudeau called for “national healing,” but also warned that emergency powers may still be necessary in the face of a “real concerns” of a resurgent blockade. (Certainly we saw other protests across the country this weekend, in Victoria, Edmonton, Sudbury, Quebec City, and doubtless many other cities.)
“We don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, but that doesn’t mean we cannot start healing as a nation.” – Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada
“The pandemic, it’s over, it’s over, we have to abolish everything, we’re tired, that’s enough.” Christian Martel, protester in Quebec City
As UNBC political science prof Fiona MacDonald observes, the protests are not about truckers or vaccines, but about “aggrieved entitlement”: outrage over benefits or status abruptly taken away, characteristic of the alt right. That’s why the protesters are carrying swastikas and Confederate flags: they want to “destabilize the current social order,” not driven by policy disagreements, but by heated emotions about a threatening world.
Political Hot Potato
That rage-fuelled, racist undercurrent to the protests hasn’t stopped politicians like SK premier Scott Moe and AB premier Jason Kenney from supporting their ostensible goal: exempting cross-border truck drivers from vaccine and quarantine policies. (Apparently it didn’t give them pause to be in the company of cosigners from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.) Moe called the Emergencies Act “an overstep,” and certainly it reflects poorly on PM Trudeau, and perhaps also the NDP who support it. Then again, Conservative leadership hopeful Pierre Poilièvre appears to be capitulating to the protesters. As National Post columnist Tristin Hopper puts it, “nobody really comes out of this looking good.” And if it’s been tough on politicians, it’s been even worse for some bureaucrats: the communications director for Ontario’s solicitor-general is out of a job after donating $100 to the convoy, and others are reportedly under investigation.
As I summed up a week ago (“Are We There Yet?” and “Bowing to Public Pressure”), Canada’s premiers and PHOs were pretty much announcing the end of the pandemic, announcing the phasing out of capacity and gathering limits, as well as vax passport programs (although the timelines varied from 24 hours to 8 weeks). Some (like BC, ON and NB) planned to hold onto mask mandates a little longer, while the prairie provinces (AB, SK, and MB) couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. Since then, CdnPSEs have been reacting to the changes to varying degrees…
Vax Required in BC Dorms
BCpses have largely been back F2F since Feb 8, and PHO Bonnie Henry explained that the pandemic strategy is no longer about controlling transmission. That being said, BC plans to keep its vax passport and mask mandates until at least mid-March – making it unique among provinces outside the Maritimes. BC nightclubsreopened to crowded dancefloors on Friday night, for the first time in 2 years (although police reported a number of conflicts in the streets). On Saturday, Henry announced that the vax requirement in PSE residenceswould be extended until Jun 30.
“We’re not out of this pandemic. We are very much, I believe, in a transition phase.” – Bonnie Henry, PHO of BC
(On the other hand, YukonU announced last week that it would postpone the implementation of a campus vax mandate, originally scheduled to start Feb 18, until Apr 30. My guess is that may never come to pass at all…)
ABpses Drop Vax Mandates
Although COVID19 hospitalizations in Alberta remain quite high (1,494 as of Friday, compared to the all-time high of 1,675), the modelers forecast a continuing decline in both case counts and hospital admissions. (Of course, when AB opens wide at month-end, “it is difficult to know what to expect.”) On Feb 14, the ministry provided ABpses with clear direction regarding campus vax requirements and social distancing, and a series of announcements followed last week. SAIT and Olds College were the first to announce an immediate end to vax requirements, and an end to mask mandates Mar 1. NAIT and uCalgary announced an end to vaccine requirements as of Feb 28, although masks will still be required. Last Thursday, uAlberta announced it would suspend its vaccination directive and “CampusReady” checks as of Feb 28, when F2F classes resume. Red Deer Polytechnic will drop its vax program Feb 27. MacEwan U says it will continue with its mask mandate until the end of Winter term.
SK Surfs the Omicron Wave
With extremely limited COVID19 testing and PHO reporting reduced from daily to weekly, it was nonetheless clear by Feb 12 that Saskatchewan was grappling with a growing Omicron wave. COVID19 hospitalizations were at record levels, deaths had doubled, surge plans were activated and ICUs in Saskatoon could no longer accept patients. Even with just half of adults triple-vaxxed, the province announced aggressive plans to end all pandemic restrictions by Feb 28, including mask mandates and requirements to self-isolate. On Friday, premier Moe reiterated his belief that the SK public would rather accept the medical risk than ongoing mask requirements. (Moe also credited his pandemic approach for a “stunning upset” victory in a northern byelection last week; critics blame “horribly low” voter turnout.) I haven’t seen any SKpse announcements since those I reported a week ago: uSask and uRegina will start allowing staff and students to “test out” of vax proof, while SaskPolytech will stop requiring tests of those who are unvaxxed.
MBpses Stay the Course
Like her Western counterparts, MB premier Heather Stefanson declared a “new normal” on Feb 11. Federal modeling warns of a surge in COVID19 hospitalizations in the province as mask mandates and vax passports are eliminated. Last Monday, Brandon U announced that it “has no plan to further disrupt your Winter Term,” so vax and mask policies remain in effect, and large classes remain online. On Friday, uManitoba clarified that its vax and KN95 mask mandates will remain in effect until the end of Winter term, May 3.
ONpses Stay the Course
A week ago, ON premier Doug Ford was just making his announcement, belatedly keeping up with his Western counterparts. (He has a provincial election this June, after all.) Most ONpses noted at the time that little would change in their approach to the term, aside from changes to campus food services and athletics facilities. (Brock U athletics and recreation, for example, were adjusting capacity limits and inviting spectators at 50% occupancy.) Algonquin College announced Thursday that vaccine passports would be discontinued Mar 1, if the province proceeds with its plans as scheduled. But Colleges Ontario announced Friday that all 24 colleges will maintain their current vaccine policies until at least the end of the Winter term, Apr 30. (I spotted individual announcements by Durham and Loyalist – and DC indicated masking requirements would also remain in place.) Likewise, uGuelph and Western U indicated that their vax and mask mandates would remain in place throughout the Winter semester. CMOH Kieran Moore said Thursday his goal is to scrap the provincial requirement that PSEs and hospitals have vax policies by Mar 1 – but hospitals sound unanimous in keeping their requirements in place, too. (The plan came as a surprise to many hospitals and municipalities, who were poised to fire unvaxxed staff.)
“We do think the highest risk is behind us, that we’re heading into a lower-risk environment and that the need for vaccination policies, across Ontario sectors, whether it’s health or colleges and universities, is no longer necessary.” – Kieran Moore, Ontario CMOH
Quebec is Divided
A week ago, Quebec was still planning to retain mask requirements and vax passports – but last Tuesday it announced the passport would be eliminated Mar 14, along with almost all COVID restrictions. (Although health minister Christian Dubé urged Quebecers to keep the app on their smartphones, in case it was needed again.) COVID19 hospitalizations had been declining in QC, but started rising somewhat this weekend as restrictions started to lift. (Today, retailers can reopen at 100% capacity, and theatres at 50%.) Some QC restaurant, theatre and gym operators plan to continue requiring the vaccine passport “for the foreseeable future,” to keep employees and customers safe. (Lawyers point out that vaccine status is not protected under the charter of rights.) Likewise, some vocal students at Concordia U are in the news, expressing concerns about being “forced” back to classrooms, even when experiencing cold symptoms. “The provincial government has set a fundamentally low bar, but that doesn’t mean that Concordia needs to be at that bar.”
As campuses reopen amid skyrocketing gasoline prices and inflationary pressures on groceries and rental accommodation, could it be that students are going to turn their attention back to pre-pandemic concerns?
Tight Housing Markets
Queen’s U students are facing an all-time high demand for housing in Kingston, as they scramble to find accommodations in time for the return to F2F classes on Feb 28.
The father of one first-year uWaterloo student is arguing that students are owed refunds for residence fees, utilities and meal plans during the January lockdown, when they were told to stay home and study online. (UW points out that students had the option to cancel and get a refund for the rest of the semester.) Queen’s U offered partial refunds of $340/week.
Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston had one of the most cautious timelines for lifting pandemic restrictions, with gradual reopening in 3 phases of 1 month each. Last Wednesday, Advanced Ed minister Brian Wong announced a new one-time COVID19 grant, to give eligible students $875 to overcome employment challenges in the pandemic, and “to help them pay their bills.”
Oh, and of course, many students will be frustrated by the rising tide of labour actions on campuses. (See my last summary, “Friction, Tremors and Fault Lines.” More on that soon…)
I missed this spot last June, but a new behind-the-scenes video this month drew it back to my attention…
Find Your Space
Swansea U (Wales) released a 2-min video last June for its “clearing” campaign (undergraduate enrolment), featuring Ffion, president of the Students’ Union, reciting a poem by a recent grad that nicely captures the student experience during COVID19: “For so long you’ve seen the world only through windows and screens… These long months were not an end, only a delay.” Of course, the video and poem also portrays the gorgeous seaside landscapes surrounding campus, and the sense of boundless wonder and opportunity for incoming undergraduates: “The space in front of you is wide open, new horizons within view… Find your space. Press play.” Swansea also released a behind-the-scenes vid that features interviews with Ffion and the poets, and plenty of beautiful drone shots of campus and the seaside. Video | BTS Vid
As always, thanks for reading!
I’m always on the lookout for innovative ideas about the future of higher ed, so please do drop me a line if you spot something you find thought-provoking, at your institution or anywhere else.
Stay safe and be well!
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