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A COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in northeastern Nova Scotia has seen 21 people test positive for the virus so far, health officials said Wednesday.

“Public health is working with the university to prevent further spread,” the province said in a news release.

Meanwhile, the faculty union at the Antigonish, N.S., school told its membership that they can choose to hold upcoming exams online. “We are informing people that it’s their right to go online if they don’t feel safe in person,” union president Martin van Bommel said in an interview.

Van Bommel said the executive of the school’s Association of University Teachers made the suggestion after a meeting on Wednesday. “We can’t go against public health if it says it’s safe to be in person,” he said. “What we are saying is it’s an individual’s right to refuse to work if they don’t feel safe – it’s their right to move online.”

The university cancelled all classes Tuesday but said exams would begin as scheduled on Thursday.

Late Wednesday, the university said it will give students and faculty choices about exams.

Tim Hynes, academic vice-president and acting provost, said faculty can proceed with in-person exams, but if students are uncomfortable with that they can postpone the exam until January.

He said faculty can also move their exam online, or to a take-home format. Hynes added it will be at the discretion of each faculty member.

“The university has been in regular contact with Nova Scotia Public Health officials and they have assured us that proceeding with an in-person exam schedule can be done in a safe way,” he said in a release.

“However, we know that because of recent events, a number of students would not be able to attend in-person exams due to isolation requirements. We are also aware that some faculty and students are very uncomfortable taking part in these in-person exams settings despite reassurances from Public Health that it is safe to do so.”

University president Andy Hakin said in a statement Tuesday night that more cases were expected as health officials investigate and more testing is done.

“While we know that news of these new cases will cause anxiety, please be assured that university officials continue to work closely with Public Health to monitor the overall status of the outbreak,” he said.

The existence of a cluster was first reported Tuesday by provincial health officials, but no numbers were released. Officials reported a total of 34 new cases in the province Wednesday, but due to the daily reporting cutoff, only 12 of the cases connected to the university were included in the day’s total.

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday the cluster is related to the university’s ceremony Friday giving rings to the graduating class, as well as related social events held on and around the campus over the weekend.

Strang said the official events respected public health protocols requiring proof of vaccination and masking where necessary, but the province is investigating off-campus events that may not have complied with the rules. Premier Tim Houston said Tuesday that anyone caught violating the province’s health protection measures would be fined.

The union issued a news release Wednesday, saying it was deeply concerned with the lack of communication from the school’s administration around the outbreak. It said exposures might have happened not only on the weekend, but on Monday and Tuesday before classes were suspended.

“Now we’re getting an indication that there were exposures on campus as early as Dec. 1,” Van Bommel said.

He said over the years, the X-ring ceremony has become a “huge event” for the graduating class and associated family members. He estimated that at least 2,000 extra people were on campus for the event and noted there was a large party afterwards in the student union building and at various locations around the university.

Nova Scotia Health said its mobile testing unit was offering COVID-19 testing at the university’s Keating Centre on Wednesday and Thursday.

The province currently has 162 active cases of novel coronavirus with 11 people hospitalized due to an infection, including four patients in intensive care.

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