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Universities across the country are suspending lectures in response to the spread of COVID-19, including Queen's University in Kingston, pictured here in this file photo from Sept., 6, 2013.Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

Universities across the country announced they would be cancelling in-person classes, moving lectures online and banning large gatherings to encourage social distancing in response to the spread of COVID-19.

In Quebec, all universities are closed for two weeks by order of the provincial government. The University of Alberta temporarily suspended classes Friday as it consults with public health officials on next steps. Queen’s University is suspending lectures next week, saying it would assess how to deliver classes beyond that time. The University of Toronto cancelled in-person classes until early April and said instruction would shift online.

“Our goal is to help interrupt the chain of transmission in the wider community, thereby protecting vulnerable individuals and ensuring that our health-care system will not become overburdened,” University of Toronto president Meric Gertler said in a campuswide e-mail.

But responses differed by region. In British Columbia, UBC said it was cancelling only lectures with more than 250 students, which would apply to a relatively small number of classes. All smaller classes would proceed as usual. Spokesman Matthew Ramsey said the university was consulting with public-health officials several times a day and their advice has been to keep classes open. Late Friday, UBC said it would transition to online classes beginning Monday.

The University of Windsor, where there are no local confirmed cases of COVID-19, said it would continue with regular lectures, in contrast to the vast majority of Ontario universities that are cancelling in-person classes. At St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., the university said it has no plans to cancel lectures or close campus.

“Almost 50 per cent of our student population hails from outside of the province of Nova Scotia and forcing our students to travel home at this time is a far greater risk than having them remain in Antigonish,” St. F-X president Kevin Wamsley said in a statement.

A student from the University of Western Ontario on exchange in Spain contracted COVID-19 and is undergoing treatment in hospital there. Two other Western students in Spain are quarantined.

Western was among the first Ontario universities to cancel in-person classes this week. The university’s president Alan Shepard said the campus is not closing, but classes will not be running until Wednesday and will be online after that. University residences will remain open, Mr. Shepard said, in contrast to some U.S. universities that shut their dorms and left students, particularly those from overseas, unsure where to turn.

“I just didn't want to do that. I thought that wasn't right. So we said if you want to go home, you can go home and if you want to stay, you can stay,” Mr. Shepard said.

Professors will have to quickly adapt to online instruction, which will be unfamiliar to many. It remains to be seen how effectively courses can be delivered under these circumstances.

“We’ve expanded our storage capacity and our infrastructure on the technology side rapidly this week. So we think we’re in pretty good shape and we’re circulating how-to guides and setting up boot camps for professors,” Mr. Shepard said.

He added that it’s difficult to cancel so many events on campus when students have often worked all year in anticipation. The university is still unsure how the spread of coronavirus might affect convocation in May and June, or the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, one of the year’s largest academic conferences, which Western is hosting around that time.

“I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself on decision making,” Mr. Shepard said.

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