A Nova Scotia university was fined for failing to follow public-health rules on Friday as schools across the country rushed to announce they would move classes online in January as a result of a rapidly worsening COVID-19 situation.
St. Francis-Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., and its student union were each fined $11,622.50 for failing to comply with province’s Health Protection Act. The provincial government said the fines stemmed from campus events earlier this month at which guests did not follow the rules on indoor mask-wearing.
“In both cases, there is video evidence of masking requirements not being followed,” Tracy Barron, a spokesperson for the provincial government, said in an e-mail.
In Ontario, a number of universities announced they would delay the start of classes in the new year and move them online for periods ranging from a week to nearly two months in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Western University said on Friday it will delay the start of the winter term until Jan. 10 and classes will be almost entirely online until the end of January. Students living in residence, who make up a significant portion of the student body, are asked not to return to campus before then.
“A delayed start of classes will provide time for our faculty and staff to shift classes to virtual platforms,” Western president Alan Shepard said in a statement, along with the presidents of Brescia, Huron and King’s colleges. “It is possible that we will need to extend the delivery of classes virtually beyond Jan. 31. We certainly hope this is not the case.”
McMaster University in Hamilton said it will hold classes online for the first week of winter term as it assesses the situation. The University of British Columbia and McGill University, where classes were almost entirely in person this fall, said they are monitoring developments.
Queen’s University, which had been offering classes mainly in person, said it will shift most of its academic activities online until the end of February. The university website says 193 new COVID-19 cases were reported this week, and 282 the week before, a reflection of a broader local outbreak that’s been called the worst in the country.
Zaid Kasim, president of the Queen’s student government, said students are unhappy with the plan to move classes online for two months.
“Students are struggling to understand why everything has to be online. I don’t think students want that. The quality of education is drastically different and they are charging the same tuition price,” Mr. Kasim said.
More than 99 per cent of Queen’s students have received two vaccinations, he said, and until very recently, the university had maintained low case counts.
“Most students don’t feel we are main contributors to the spread,” Mr. Kasim said.
He said Queen’s distributed thousands of rapid antigen tests to students this week before they returned home to their families in an effort to prevent unwittingly spreading the disease.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said earlier this week that a rugby championship at Queen’s contributed to a large outbreak at the University of Victoria.
“There was some transmission from the varsity rugby team which participated in a rugby game, and I don’t have all of the details of how many teams were there, but it has led to outbreaks in several other universities across the country as well,” Dr. Henry said.
In Nova Scotia, St. F-X has been the site of a relatively large COVID-19 outbreak that has been blamed on gatherings related to a ceremony at which graduating students are awarded the university’s famous X-ring. The ceremony was held in person this year in early December, and shortly afterward the number of cases on campus began to jump. As of Thursday, 176 students had notified the university they had tested positive for COVID-19.
St. F-X president Andrew Hakin said earlier in the week that he and two other senior administrators also contracted COVID-19. He was in meetings on Friday and unavailable for an interview, but in an update to the community said that Nova Scotia university presidents had spoken with Chief Medical Officer of Health Robert Strang and were still assessing how to approach the winter term.
“The speed of transmission of this variant of the virus is well beyond what has been seen previously. We will continue to meet and work with Public Health to understand the outlook and impact to our community and respond accordingly,” Dr. Hakin wrote.
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