Why are classes at CUE online when schools are open for face-to-face interaction?
September 30, 2020
The international community remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and Canada has not been shielded from its impacts. Cases remain prevalent in Alberta, including recent outbreaks at a number of post-secondary institutions. Despite taking precautions and following public health guidelines, community transmission has continued and likely will until a vaccine, or other effective treatment, is approved and widely distributed.
CUE is not an outlier in our response to COVID-19. Almost all post-secondary institutions across the country shifted to a predominately virtual delivery model for the fall semester. It was the safe, and sensible, thing to do, and continues to be as we grapple with the second wave of the pandemic.
Comparing K-12 to Post-Secondary
It is difficult to compare K-12 schools and universities. While both are designed for teaching and learning, there are important differences when it comes to interaction patterns within these institutions. University students tend to have exponentially higher levels of contact with a large number of people, both on and off campus, than K-12 students. University students also use a wider variety of classrooms and spaces, and campuses tend to have higher numbers of students and employees than K-12 schools. At the same time, the science suggests the virus does not spread as easily amongst children compared to adults, nor does it have the same impact on their overall health, possibly because children have fewer of the receptors that COVID-19 uses to infiltrate cells in the body. Even so, and despite precautions, a number of outbreaks have occurred in schools across the country, including many in Edmonton.
Analyzing the Current Situation
The decision to open K-12 schools for in-person classes was made by the Government of Alberta based on the advice of Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. While CUE is certainly open for business and offering what we can in-person, the current guidelines and recommendations do not allow us to fully open our campus. While this may be frustrating, it would not be prudent, responsible, or safe to risk the health and safety of our campus community. While nothing we do is ever entirely risk-free, we have done an excellent job at safety sustaining and modifying our operations during the pandemic. Due to our management of in-person interactions—consistent with advice from Alberta Health Services and combined with good fortune—we have, so far, avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 at CUE. While there are no guarantees, especially during a pandemic, our team is doing our very best to ensure that things stay that way.
Learning from Other Institutions
Probably the best argument for why Canadian universities should stick to a mostly online approach comes from the experience of post-secondary institutions across the United States. While almost all Canadian universities were careful to limit in-person contact throughout the fall semester, this was not the case in the United States, despite the fact that they had ample evidence ahead of time to indicate that this would be a risky path forward. While there have been outbreaks on Canadian campuses, these have been relatively small and manageable while those on campuses across the U.S. have been catastrophic. Some examples of many cited daily in the Chronicle of Higher Education include:
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moving abruptly to online classes just two weeks into the semester following 130 positive COVID-19 cases amongst students during the first week of classes.
- Michigan State University had 1250 cases of COVID-19 as of September 24.
- Pennsylvania State University nearly doubled its COVID-19 cases in the span of a week in mid-September from 709 to 1,372—including 50 student athletes.
- Providence College had to impose a stay-at-home order after 124 of its students tested positive for COVID-19.
- The University of Virginia saw its largest daily increase in COVID-19 cases in mid-September, with 39 people testing positive for a total of 371.
- By mid-September, more than 1,600 cases of COVID-19 had been reported at the University of Iowa.
- At the University of South Carolina at Columbia, 1,872 students tested positive for COVID-19 between August 1 and September 10.
- Indiana University had more than 1,300 cases of COVID-19 between August 22 and September 9.
- At Florida State University, 839 students tested for positive for COVID-19 between August 1 and September 9.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Indiana University, University of Washington, and Davidson College conducted a study that showed that reopening colleges in the fall drove a surge of about 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day across the U.S. These numbers are unacceptably high. We do not want to emulate that in Canada, and it is for these reasons we must proceed with caution.
I acknowledge that we are all suffering screen fatigue, living so much of our lives online when as recently as March, we were living very different lives. It has serious impacts on mood, mental health, and positive interactions with others. However, the dangers of COVID-19 are real and we are left with no alternative if we want to avoid escalating transmission of the virus, which of course we all do.
At CUE, we are committed to doing our best to open up to in-person experiences as much as possible, and as quickly as possible, while at the same time considering precautions around health and safety. The decisions we make around COVID-19 and reopening will accord with this commitment.
Tim Loreman, PhD
President and Vice-Chancellor