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Western said before the start of the fall term that it was trying to preserve as many on-campus learning opportunities as it could safely provide.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Five students at the University of Western Ontario have tested positive for COVID-19 less than a week after the start of classes, prompting the local health authority in Ontario to declare an outbreak.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit said the five students live in the broader community, not on campus, and have not attended classes or campus activities. But they visited bars and restaurants in London’s downtown where they mixed with a number of people.

They also spent time with other students in neighbouring houses and apartments. The health unit declared a community outbreak Sunday, saying it expects more cases to turn up in the next few days.

It’s the first major outbreak associated with a university in Canada since the fall term began. Some epidemiologists have expressed concern that young people returning to school, even with classes primarily online, could become a key vector of disease transmission as they gather for parties and other social events. The outbreak occurred as other communities with large university-age populations are cracking down on behaviour that could endanger public health.

Many Canadian universities have chosen a hybrid model that combines online learning with some limited in-person instruction. But each is charting its own course on how much activity to allow on campus and how many students to lodge in university residences. One aspect of student life that many universities struggle to restrict, however, is off-campus social life. Frosh-week parties and public-health concerns were reported in some communities across Canada last week.

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“We know our students value the opportunity to be on campus and have some in-class experiences – and for this to continue to happen, everyone must play a role in keeping themselves and the community safe by following public-health guidelines,” said Jennifer Massey, associate vice-president of student experience at Western.

“Students want to be together and socialize, and we strongly encourage them to avoid parties and large gatherings and ensure their social circles include a maximum of 10 people.”

Western said before the start of the fall term, which began Sept. 9, that it was trying to preserve as many on-campus learning opportunities as it could safely provide. Roughly 25 per cent to 30 per cent of its classes will include an unspecified “on-campus experience” this fall, including some undergraduate seminars and labs where physical distancing is possible. The amount of in-person instruction differs depending on a student’s program and year of study.

Concerns about the behaviour of postsecondary students have been raised elsewhere. At Queen’s University, a professor wrote an open letter to the community last week saying he had seen large gatherings of students partying and not observing physical-distancing rules. The City of Kingston was forced to close a public beach close to campus after crowding became impossible to control.

City officials have responded to more than 300 noise complaints in the past two weeks, primarily from the area around the Queen’s campus, and issued dozens of fines in an attempt to clamp down on gatherings.

In Nova Scotia, RCMP announced that four university students had been charged under the Health Protection Act over the Labour Day weekend for failing to self-isolate after entering what’s been called the Atlantic Bubble. Three of the students were in Antigonish, N.S., and one was in Wolfville, N.S. All were fined $1,000. Nova Scotia requires all students coming from outside Atlantic Canada to isolate for 14 days and be tested three times for COVID-19.

Dozens of universities in the United States have shifted to holding classes entirely online after a number of outbreaks in the wake of students returning last month. In many cases, the outbreaks were linked to parties or to students living together in dormitories.

Although the level of community spread in Canada has been much lower than in the U.S., bringing students back together is a growing concern for public-health officials.

“If we ever needed evidence to show there’s still a risk from COVID-19 in the community, this is it,” said Chris Mackie, Middlesex-London Medical Officer of Health.

“We know the temptation to get back together with friends and party is great, but it is crucial that we all do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The affected Western students are being monitored in isolation, the health unit said. The university has already set up a trailer in a campus parking lot to facilitate testing for students and staff.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated this is first outbreak at a Canadian post-secondary institution. In fact, it is the first at a Canadian university.

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