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COVID-19: updates for Canada’s universities

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We are publishing regular updates on the situation facing Canada’s universities with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor’s note: please check back regularly for more updates.

March 25, 2020 12:00 p.m. EST

But what is “essential”?

Canada’s two most populous provinces have ordered the closure of all non-essential, in-person workplaces, and it’s raising the question of just what, exactly, is considered an essential service on a university campus. At the University of Toronto, for example, residences, campus police, food services, maintenance and IT will stay open and employees will continue to report to work on campus. Labs and offices conducting COVID-19 research have, understandably, been exempted as have projects deemed “time-sensitive and critical.”

Student funding update

More universities are offering emergency funds for students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. At Vancouver Island University, the student union and VIU Foundation have each donated $75,000 to help establish an emergency bursary fund for students. The university has launched a crowdfunding website for the fund, with a goal of raising an additional $100,000 by the end of May.

Université de Sherbrooke, meanwhile, has pledged $500,000 to support students facing financial hardship in light of job losses and sudden additional costs related to the pandemic. Details on how to access funding will be available to students by Monday. And the university has put a four-month pause on billing for interest charges on unpaid tuition fees.

The University of New Brunswick is offering any student registered from the winter 2020 term up to $1,000 to help cover urgent travel fees and living costs.

Most provinces have now followed the federal government’s lead in suspending student loan payments for a six-month period. In the past week, Newfoundland, B.C., Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and PEI have all announced loan-relief measures.

Canada shuts military colleges – finally

On Tuesday afternoon, Canadian Armed Forces announced the cancellation of in-person training at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, and in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. The cancellations come more than a week after postsecondary institutions in both provinces cancelled on-campus classes.

Department of Defence employees raised concerns about RMC maintaining courses despite the federal government’s persistent call for self-isolation, social distancing and the suspension of non-essential travel and business — as well as both provincial governments having declared a state of emergency. La Presse notes that as of March 20, the department reported three of its employees had contracted COVID-19 and had unwittingly returned to work.

Office hours for teaching and learning questions

Having a hard time with the transition to online teaching and testing? The Maple League is hosting online “office hours” with faculty experts to help! The Maple League is posting upcoming topics for their virtual office hours on Twitter. Today’s topic: adapting assessments and exams.

There’s a podcast for that

The University of Calgary has launched COVIDcast. The (weekly?) podcast features U of C experts answering questions and exploring issues related to COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus that causes the illness. The first episode, which went live on March 23, has public health expert Bill Ghali, U of C’s vice-president, research, talking about the impact of COVID-19 on research activity, the treatment of other illnesses, and the coordinated response by public health officials.

Work-integrated learning adapts

Riipen, a Canadian-made platform that administers online experiential education opportunities, has waived subscription fees for the spring-summer terms. The software allows universities to continue work-integrated-learning programs, with students participating remotely in co-ops, internships and related coursework.

International students stuck in Canada

Canada attracts more than 400,000 international students to its postsecondary institutions every year. While many of those students have found their way home, some are stuck here. The CBC reports that those remaining students are feeling “increasingly isolated, lonely and worried,” and outlines what universities are doing to try and help. The Journal de Montréal also reports that international students in Quebec are stressed about how they’ll afford to stay in the country while they wait for their visas to be extended.

March 24, 2020 10:45 a.m. EST

Diagnostic expertise (and childcare) needed for COVID-19 testing

The Moriarty Lab, an infectious diseases research lab led by Tara Moriarty at the University of Toronto, put a call out on Twitter for Canadian researchers, senior PhD students, postdocs and lab technicians who can help with COVID-19 testing in public health labs – including those who can lend a hand with childcare. Scientists with relevant experience and skills are urged to sign up with the lab online.

New funding for R&D and manufacturing in fight against COVID-19

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that $275 million has been earmarked for the research, development and production of medical equipment and treatments for COVID-19 as well as a vaccine against the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease. The funding, part of the federal government’s $1-billion COVID-19 Response Fund, is intended “to quickly mobilize Canadian researchers and life sciences companies” and will be used to support research projects that are already underway.

As with other emergency funding measures the government has unveiled in the past week, the research funding will largely come through existing programs. Notably, $192 million will be distributed to new projects under the new Strategic Innovation Fund’s COVID-19 stream.

Funding will also go to infectious disease research, clinical trials and bio-manufacturing at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac). The Canada Foundation for Innovation will add $11 million with another $12 million coming from Western Economic Diversification’s Regional Economic Growth Through Innovation program.

Some $15 million will fund upgrades to the National Research Council’s Human Health Therapeutics biomanufacturing facility in Montreal for the eventual mass production of promising vaccine candidates. The NRC will also receive money to organize the Pandemic Response Challenge Program and the COVID-19 Challenges Procurement Program.

Read more about the NRC’s extensive COVID-19 response programs here, and other projects that the federal government will fund, according a statement released yesterday.

The prime minister also called upon postsecondary institutions and entreprises of all sizes to donate supplies to the fight against COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus. A list of needed services and items, including disposable surgical masks and hand sanitizer, has been posted to the Public Works and Government Services Canada website.

Graduate supervision

The University of Calgary’s faculty of graduate studies has put together a comprehensive guide for “effective remote supervision.” It’s a useful resource for supervisors and grad students alike, with tips on project management, setting up a workspace, and practical considerations for conducting research.

Mitacs cancels internships

Mitacs has cancelled its prestigious Globalink Research Internship program for this summer. However, the call for 2021 participants continues. Current Globalink Research Award winners are expected to continue their work remotely.

Alone, together

Ryerson University’s Student Life team is hosting streaming movie viewings at noon (ET) every day this week. Join them through the Netflix Party web browser extension.

March 20, 2020 10:45 a.m. EST

According to Ken Steele, 14 campuses are reporting 21 confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19. The list now includes Western University, the University of Alberta and the University of Victoria.

Some international students exempt from travel ban

The Government of Canada has clarified that international students who held a valid study permit, or had been approved for a study permit, on March 18, 2020, would be exempt from federal air-travel restrictions. The exemption will allow international students to return to Canada to resume their studies once exams and courses resume. Study-permit applicants who were approved after the travel restriction took effect on March 18 are not exempt from the air-travel restrictions. The exempted travellers will be subject to mandatory health checks upon boarding and leaving their flights, and should self-isolate for 14 days once in Canada.

Universities offer emergency student funding

Université Laval has established an emergency fund for students facing a financial crisis as a result of the pandemic. At a press conference on Thursday, university president Sophie D’Amours said the fund was created in a show of solidarity with students who suddenly find themselves unemployed due to business closures and layoffs. While it’s not yet clear how much each student will be entitled to, the president underlined that the pool of money, which will be primarily funded by donations through the university’s not-for-profit foundation, is intended as a last resort.

The University of Toronto has also made emergency funds available to undergraduate students affected by COVID-19. The Emergency Undergraduate Grant is available to domestic and international undergrads in need of need immediate, short-term funding because of unexpected expenses related to the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Laurentian University has raised $80,000 in emergency funds for students. Each student is eligible for up to $500 to help cover emergency costs, like those related to moving or to accessing high-speed internet for online courses.

U of Calgary opts for pass/fail

Students at the University of Calgary will have the choice to receive a letter grade for their winter term courses, or to opt for pass/fail. The news comes after the University of Alberta extended the same offer to students late last week. In a statement, U of C’s provost and vice-president, academic, Dru Marshall explained how the process will work once grades are release on May 12:

“Courses with ‘Credit Received’ (CR) or ‘Fail’ will not be included in GPA calculations. CR grades will still count towards their degree completion requirements. A [letter] grade of ‘D’ and better will qualify for the ‘Credit Received’ notation for undergraduate courses. For graduate courses, a grade of ‘B-’ or better will qualify for the ‘Credit Received’ notation. Students will have until May 22 to indicate their choice.” The course withdrawal period has also been extended to April 15.

Student-loan relief in PEI

On Friday, Prince Edward Island’s Education and Lifelong Learning Minster Brad Trivers announced a six-month suspension on provincial student loan repayments.

What it’s like to have COVID-19

A 22-year-old McGill University student recounts her experience with the disease, caused by the novel coronavirus, which she contracted after travelling to Miami for spring break. “I didn’t think I had the virus. Even up until the day I went to get tested, I still didn’t think I had it,” the student says. After returning to Canada, the student, who had mild cold symptoms, continued to attend events on campus.

Tips: financial planning, defending your diss, community engagement

In this YFile Q&A, York University’s Amin Mawani, associate professor of taxation and academic director of the Health Industry Management Program at the Schulich School of Business, offers advice on how faculty, staff and students can approach financial preparedness in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Have you suddenly found yourself preparing to defend your PhD dissertation online instead of in person? Susanna Mitro, who successfully defended her research in population health sciences at Harvard University on Friday, shares her #distancedefense tips. A few nuggets: leave space in your slides to accommodate a videoconferencing window, have a Plan B in case your wifi cuts out, and “embrace opportunities for joy!”

Simon Fraser University’s Public Square has compiled an excellent list of resources for community engagement in a time of social distancing. Resources listed range from tips for keeping socially connected, online arts and cultural events, grassroots and local community support, and kid-friendly media recommendations for parents.

March 20, 2020 10:15 a.m. EST

It’s official: no in-person Congress

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences confirmed last night that this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences won’t be taking place as planned at Western University from May 30 to June 5. The annual conference, which brings together some 70 scholarly associations and more than 8,000 attendees from Canada and abroad, will instead move to an online platform that has yet to be determined. Associations interested in participating in the virtual Congress have until March 27 to confirm their interest with FedCan.

The organization will be hosting a webinar preview of the virtual format for association representatives next week. Details about the webinar, the adapted conference, cancellation and refund procedures will follow.

“Moving Congress online is going to be a learning curve for everyone involved, but also a unique opportunity we can embrace together. Thank you, and we look forward to the opportunity to work with you to bring a virtual Congress to life,” reads the official statement.

No letter grades

There has been some speculation on social media about whether instructors may resort to pass/fail grades for their students this term, rather than letter grades. According to the University of Alberta’s student newspaper The Gateway, this is now the case at the university: “Both undergraduate and graduate students will receive either a CR, IN or NC on their transcript of classes for this semester denoting ‘credit,’ ‘incomplete,’ or ‘non-credit’ respectively. The designation will bear no weight in calculating a student’s grade point average. … Exemptions to this grading scheme may be established by deans for reasons related to accreditation or licensure requirements.”

The university’s academic standards committee also approved a motion “amending all university transcripts being issued this semester to include an explanation of what the new grading codes mean and why no letter grade was issued during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

U of A president, David Turpin, said the measures will ensure students can progress despite the challenging circumstances presented during the COVID-19 pandemic. “These changes will help alleviate concerns students are facing and give clarity on what to expect moving forward,” he said.

Spring and summer terms

More universities, including Brock University, Carleton University and Saint Mary’s University, have announced they will be delivering spring and summer sessions through distance learning only. There will be no in-person classes, therefore, at least until the fall term. Expect many more, if not all, universities to follow suit. Most universities have also extended course withdrawal dates without penalty for the winter term.

More rapid-response research funding from feds

On Thursday, Minister of Health Patty Hajdu announced $25 million in research funding for COVID-19 research projects. The funds are part of a $275-million package the prime minister had introduced on March 11. This influx of money adds 49 new research projects to the 47 projects unveiled on March 6.

More potential COVID-19 cases associated with universities

Yesterday, Dalhousie University president Deep Saini sent a message alerting to community to a presumptive case of COVID-19 at the institution. He affirmed that anyone who had not been contacted directly by Nova Scotia Public Health is not considered at risk of contracting the illness.

Nova Scotia Public Health also advised the public of a potential low-risk exposure to COVID-19 at two Halifax locations that hosted a provincial high school basketball tournament between March 5 and March 7. One of those locations is the Homburg Athletic Centre gymnasium at Saint Mary’s University. The health agency notes that anyone who was at a high risk of exposure has already been identified and contacted.

Phishing scams

Several universities, including McMaster University as well as the universities of Guelph and Manitoba, are warning that email phishing scams related to COVID-19 are on the rise.

Kind words

Yes, we already singled him out in an earlier update, but another lesson in empathy and compassion from Carleton University’s president Benoit Antoine-Bacon in his letter to the community this morning:

“Every single one of us deserves thanks and congratulations for playing our part in keeping ourselves and others safe, in helping to flatten the curve, in keeping our required services going on- and off-campus, and for preserving the integrity of our academic mission by swiftly and efficiently moving all our courses to online and other modes of distance learning within a short week!

I can’t thank everyone individually, but I can recognize many – but by no means all – of the key groups who have distinguished themselves this week, starting with all teaching staff and students who connected online, with flexibility and compassion, and were there to support one another. …

To all the great people who were on campus this week to keep us safe, to ensure our IT and online learning systems performed well … to make sure our students still in residence were taken care of and well fed … to offer health and counselling appointments to whoever needed it, to help in moving our courses online on such a tight timeline … THANK YOU!

I would like to tip my hat to all our union leaders who as always have represented their members professionally and effectively, while at the same time showing remarkable collaboration and flexibility in service to our students and community. The same can be said of our student leaders who have shown tremendous courage and grace under pressure throughout the week.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t honour the frontline leadership of Department Chairs, Program Supervisors, Associate Deans, Administrative Managers and Directors, and all those we all counted on to make daily decisions in a way that wisely balanced safety and the wellbeing of our community, the needs of students, faculty and staff, and the continuity of our operations and academic mission.”

 

March 19, 2020 11:00 a.m. EST

The number of major new announcements from universities has slowed since yesterday. Updates consist mainly of campuses continuing to close facilities and maintaining only basic essential services. Most university staff are being asked to work remotely.

As well, students are increasingly being told to vacate residences where possible, and some universities have said they will be offering rebates on residence fees for students because of the truncated academic year.

Some universities have also already announced that there will be no face-to-face instruction for courses offered in the spring/summer session. Several universities have cancelled spring convocation, and many more will certainly follow. As Alex Usher commented this morning in his usual cheeky manner, “For any given issue, find the institution with the most extreme, comprehensive response and everyone will be there in a week or sooner.”

The next big step for universities is the major transition to online learning for the remainder of the term. Some universities planned to have faculty restart their teaching as of today, but many are taking a pause until at least Monday to sort things out.

Would you like to share with us how your transition to online is going, or any other stories of cooperation, coordination or resilience in these unprecedented times? Write to editor@univcan.ca.

Keeping up-to-date

A shout-out to a couple of people doing a great job offering updates from across the country. Nicole Crozier, who, according to her personal website, is a student affairs professional working in orientation at the University of Victoria and a master’s student studying educational technology, has been posting all the latest COVID-19 university announcements on her Twitter feed. And, well-known higher education consultant Ken Steele has been doing a comprehensive daily wrap-up at his Eduvation website.

We also remind you to check all the latest headlines on our daily media scan.

Student loans

As we mentioned yesterday, as part of the Prime Minister’s $82-billion economic aid package, students who are currently repaying Canada Student Loans will be able to suspend payments on those loans for six months, interest-free. And now, the Alberta government has also announced a nearly identical six-month repayment moratorium on Alberta student loans, essentially creating a grace period for loan repayments until September.

Research funding updates

We thank Carleton University for this comprehensive list of links to funding agency updates.

Federal Tri-Agency (SSHRC/NSERC/CIHR)

CFI

MITACS

 

March 18, 2020 2:45 p.m. EST

Student loan relief

Prime Minister Trudeau announced an $82-billion economic package this morning to address COVID-19: $27 billion in direct support to Canadians and $55 billion in tax deferrals. Of particular note for students, among the many measures announced, there will be “a six-month interest-free moratorium on the repayment of Canada Student Loans for all individuals currently in the process of repaying these loans.”

Compassionate communications

Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon is getting praise for his compassionate and informative messaging to the campus community during these trying times. “Days ahead of the curve and prioritizing students, staff, and the greater Ottawa community every step of the way,” commented Dwaine A. Taylor. A “consistently empathetic, responsive, authentic tone,” added Caroline Kealey.

Among some of Dr. Bacon’s entreaties: “As we continue to navigate these uncharted waters, please take care of yourself and each other … our commitment to knowledge and to each other will always prevail.” His latest Message from the President can be found here.

U of Lethbridge member self-isolating

The University of Lethbridge announced yesterday that a “member of our campus community has reported to us that their partner, who recently returned from an international trip, has tested positive for COVID-19. The affected individual has not been on campus since returning, however our community member has.” Those who were in close contact with the community member have been informed, says the university, and were asked to self-isolate.

Drive-through testing

University of Calgary student Nirav Saini contacted UA to say he recently started a petition calling for greater drive-through COVID-19 testing nationwide. “When I heard that one of the students at the University of Calgary tested positive … it brought the reality very close to the heart. I had to go through testing and now I am self-isolating alone in my basement. I started this petition after realizing how scary it could be to wait to get tested and then for the results to come back.” It has received over 4,000 signatures in two days.

March 18, 2020 9:30 a.m. EST

Universities, in their actions, are now primarily responding to provincial public health declarations. The governments of Ontario, Alberta and B.C. each declared official emergencies on Tuesday, empowering their governments to enforce restrictions such as social distancing with fines or other penalties. All K-12 schools are closed. The Quebec government ordered all educational facilities, from daycares to universities, closed last Friday.

As a result, while most universities report that their campuses remain open, they are closing libraries and recreation facilities, ending all non-essential research, and moving student services online. We are also seeing campuses move towards an “essential services model.” Ryerson University explains what this means for its students, staff and faculty:

“Essential services are those that are necessary to enable our university to ensure the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff; to preserve critical infrastructure, minimize serious environmental damage, and continue the delivery of administrative functions required to support core organizational priorities.” Among the essential services required to continue operating on campus are community safety and security, computing and communication services, facilities management, and the medical centre.

Note, as we reported yesterday, that many universities are requesting all students to leave campus residences unless they simply have nowhere else to go.


Read also: Academic freedom in the time of coronovirus


The last class

The University of Northern British Columbia officially ended face-to-face classes as of midnight Pacific Time yesterday, March 17. If you were a student attending an evening class at UNBC last night, or a professor teaching one, congratulations! This was likely the last in-person class to be taught at a university in Canada for the 2019-2020 academic year.

UNBC had originally planned to end in-person classes as of end-of-day today, March 18, but pushed the deadline up a day. Ditto for Memorial University, which also moved up the deadline for suspension of all classes by 24 hours, to end-of-day yesterday.

More cancellations

The 2020 Canadian Association for University Continuing Education Conference and annual general meeting scheduled for May 26-28, in Calgary, has been postponed until spring 2021.

The Acfas annual conference scheduled to take place May 4 to 8 at Université de Sherbrooke and Bishop’s University has been canceled. “This is the first time in 87 years that Acfas will not hold its annual congress and that the French-speaking scientific community will not be able to come together,” the association wrote in a statement published on Tuesday. Those who have registered for the conference will receive information on reimbursement arrangements in the coming weeks.

So far, there has been no announcement about the cancellation or postponement of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, scheduled for May 30 to June 5 at Western University in London, Ontario. An announcement from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences is expected today.

Admissions this fall

Alex Usher, president of Toronto-based consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, was speculating in his daily blog this morning about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university admissions this coming fall – and the scenarios he paints are not encouraging.

Campus open houses in the spring are often important for regional and smaller universities to attract prospective students – many of these institutions say “that the campus visit is the most important tool they have to pull students in from the larger urban centres,” he writes. But, of course, all such visits are now cancelled indefinitely.


Read also: Coronavirus and cancelled travel – some fringe benefits for researchers?


So how will students make decisions? “That’s anyone’s guess … Institutions in large cities will probably see higher yields this year (that is, a greater fraction of the students they admit will show up) and those in smaller cities will see lower ones … Financial consequences will flow from this.”

As far as international recruitment is concerned, the situation “is so up in the air I am not sure I can write sensibly about it.” One of the main concerns is that international students might not be able to take the necessary language tests (such as TOEFL) or other placement examinations to be admitted for studying in Canada.

And then the kicker: when, he wonders, will universities even be back open again? “At this point in the cycle it’s not clear institutions are going to open in September.”

Miscellaneous

Missing your gym routine? The University of Manitoba’s recreation services has started posting home workouts on their YouTube channel.

The Owens Gallery at Mount Allison University wants to help keep you creatively sharp. They’re tweeting drawing prompts under the hashtag #OwensDailyDraw.

Biohacker Andrew Pelling has relocated a long-term lab experiment from the University of Ottawa to his … house. Follow the Twitter thread on how he DIY’d his home lab – and stay for the daily cocktail recommendations. (And read more about Dr. Pelling’s fascinating work in our feature profile from 2017.)

March 17, 2020 3:30 p.m. EST

Updates from funders

On Monday, Canada’s Tri-Agencies (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR) posted a joint update alerting the research community that the granting councils are modifying business operations in light of social distancing, though the update didn’t provide much in the way of detail. According to the statement, the agencies “recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic may affect your work, your ability to conduct and to review research, and your ability to prepare and submit publications or grant and scholarship applications. We understand that some research could be jeopardized or slowed down; the preparation of research and financial reports may be delayed; and meetings, events, and travel plans might also be affected. The granting agencies will continue to support the research community as we adapt to these challenges.” They add that any changes or adaptations will be made on a program-by-program basis, and will be communicated by the relevant granting council on their respective websites.

Meanwhile, the Canada Council for the Arts recommends that grant recipients closely document any lost revenue due to event cancellations or deferrals that are directly related to COVID-19. “There is no single person who knows what to do and no one alone will have the resources to address the impacts of what we are currently facing. But, first and foremost, people must be taken care of. We must reassure and help the most vulnerable, and mobilize resources to enable them to overcome this situation with dignity. This is our commitment at the Council,” writes director Simon Brault.

COVID-19 case at ON university, two presumptive cases at N.B. institution

Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, reported on Sunday that a man with ties to the university has tested positive for COVID-19. University president Leo Groarke added that local public health authorities have already been in touch with anyone he may have come into contact with.

As of Monday, the University New Brunswick has been monitoring the status of two presumptive cases of COVID-19 at the Fredericton campus. The university is working with New Brunswick Public Health on contact tracing, and the health authority is following up with anyone who might be in close contact with the individuals. In his statement, UNB president Paul Mazerolle acknowledged “that we do not have all the answers. I appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through this unprecedented situation.” He added that regular updates on the situation will be sent via UNB email and through UNB’s social media channels.

Government updates

On Sunday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced special measures to help temporary and permanent residents, including those here on study permits, who are affected by service disruptions due to the novel coronavirus. IRCC has published a website providing detailed information.

With the Government of Ontario declaring a state of emergency today, expect university buildings, libraries and other university facilities in the province to be closed to anyone but authorized visitors. Please check your institutions’ website for specific information.

More cancellations and advice

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies has postponed all 3 Minute Thesis contests until further notice.

The Royal Society of Canada has prepared a list of its members who have expertise in the fields of infectious diseases, public health policy, and research ethics, among other subjects relevant to the current pandemic.

Need a Zoom bootcamp? UA columnist Jennifer Polk has prepared an open-access guide for beginners to the video conferencing platform. Find it here.

For higher-ed marketing and communications staff, Ken Steele of Eduvation has been keeping an updated post on communications best practices in response to COVID-19.

March 17, 2020 9:45 a.m. EST

Two universities report cases of COVID-19, and one gives the all-clear

Yesterday, the University of Calgary and Quebec City’s Université Laval announced that a member of their communities had tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement, U of Calgary president Ed McCauley said that the person, who is affiliated with the university’s science department, has been in self-isolation and hadn’t been on campus since March 9. In short, “this individual did everything right.”

“As a result, they were not on campus while exhibiting symptoms,” he adds. “Communicable disease experts believe the risk of additional transmission was significantly reduced by these actions. Cleaning actions will further reduce transmission risk and we have closed the particular facilities associated with this individual until further notice.”

In light of this news, the university is speeding up its efforts to make student services remotely available as of today. It will also provide additional safety training for staffers who must come to campus, and will make accommodations for social distancing.

At ULaval, the law faculty was alerted by public health officials that a student had tested positive for COVID-19. As of this morning, the university is instructing community members who need to come to campus to pick up laptops, work documents or personal items to do so today or tomorrow. Access to campus buildings will be restricted to “authorized persons only.”

On Saturday, the University of Regina reported that two of its students who had been self-isolating on campus had tested negative for COVID-19.

How’s it going? Let us know

Are you an administrator, faculty of staff member at a Canadian university? We’d like to hear from you during these extraordinary times. Please send us a short report on your experiences/observations at your university to editor@univcan.ca and we’ll publish a collection of your stories here.

March 17, 2020 9:15 a.m. EST

Student residences

There is a growing push among some universities to get students to leave campus residences as soon as possible. In a message by University of Waterloo president Feridun Hamdullahpur just after 9:00 p.m. last night, he said, “We are strongly encouraging all students to make arrangements to move out of residence by noon on Friday, March 20.”

The University of Guelph is also asking students “to vacate their residences as soon as possible.”

Wilfrid Laurier University is more emphatic, declaring: “The university is requiring all students to move out of Laurier-operated residences at all campus locations by Wednesday, March 18 at 11:59 p.m. We recognize how disruptive this will be as you move out of the space you’ve called home and we’re committed to supporting you through this process.” Only under exceptional circumstances will students be permitted to remain in residence beyond Wednesday, it says. “Students should consider all options, including staying with relatives or friends.”

Students who may be able to remain in residence include:

  • International students;
  • Out-of-province students who need extra time to move out;
  • Students who live more than five hours away from campus; and
  • Students who are currently self-isolating.

Likewise, Brock University has announced that its student residences will be closing this week, and all remaining students, excluding exceptional circumstances, will be required to move out of their residence rooms by 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 19. The only exception to this “will be students who can demonstrate that they have no other alternatives for accommodation.”

Shutting down St. Patrick’s Day celebrations

The University of Waterloo, among others, has another concern: unsanctioned street parties to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, March 17. The university tweeted: “With the known and rapidly growing global risks of COVID-19, we want to be explicit: going to Ezra Avenue in Waterloo or participating in other unsanctioned public gatherings to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is irresponsible.”

Ezra Avenue, near the Wilfrid Laurier University campus, is known for its rowdy street parties. Laurier president Deb MacLatchy, also reached out, saying: “Do the right thing on St. Patrick’s Day.”

She continues: “We are in the midst of an extraordinary global health crisis. The world’s top experts are urging all of us to take dramatic action to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). This is not a joke. This is real. … As young adults, it’s true that you are least likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19. But you can easily transmit this virus to others who aren’t as strong as you — small children, grandparents, and those both young and old who have underlying health difficulties and compromised immune systems.

For this reason, I implore you not to be part of the unsanctioned street parties associated with St. Patrick’s Day or any other large public gathering.”

Queen’s University has a similar message. In a tweet, Queen’s principal Patrick Deane and the presidents of the school’s two student societies “urge Queen’s students not to participate in mass social gatherings on St. Patrick’s Day to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Despite warnings from various health agencies, students at Queen’s crowded streets this past Saturday to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

And, just to show that it’s not just students who may be disregarding public health warnings, there’s this story from today’s Globe and Mail: “Not okay, boomer: Tensions mount between generations as some seniors resist social distancing.”

The shift to online learning

In what will likely become a slew of similar stories emerging over the next few weeks, educators are confronting the challenges of moving classes online or to alternative formats. In an article in the National Post, Thierry Karsenti, a Université de Montréal professor in information and communication technologies, says the sudden arrival of online teaching for all of a student’s courses is a major shift.

“Are teachers prepared? No,” he said in an interview. “But when you’re facing challenges, it’s one way to learn. It’s a good time to learn and to overcome these challenges.”

Dr. Karsenti, the who holds the Canada Research Chair on Communication Technologies in Education, has just published a list of nine free tools for online teaching (in English and French) that he says any teacher can use to provide their courses online.

Note, as we reported yesterday, that the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education has developed a new website (www.keepteaching.ca) with resources to assist learning institutions make the shift to alternative forms of teaching. And also yesterday, UA columnist Andrea Eidinger yesterday implored her instructor colleagues to embrace “doing an OK job” as the sector navigates this massive transition.

March 16, 2020 3 p.m. EST

Today, the University of British Columbia has implemented a remote-work arrangement as a three-week pilot project. In addition to course instructors, the university is now requesting all faculty members, staff, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and student staff to work from home, if possible.

At Carleton University, president Benoit-Antoine Bacon published the first of what will be daily letters to update the community. He notes in particular the university’s efforts to decrease density on campus by offering students living in residence pro-rated refunds on room fees and meal plans. (Some other institutions, including the University of Ottawa, have extended similar offers.) He also clarifies Carleton’s intention to support and accommodate international students who are unwilling or unable to return home at this time: “I want to reassure everyone that international students who cannot go home because of travel restrictions will be taken care of not only to the end of the term but this summer as well. This is the Carleton way – we take care of each other.”

Dr. Bacon’s letter refers to major announcements today from the provincial and federal governments. The federal government announced a ban on foreign nationals entering Canada, with some exceptions, beginning on March 18. In his statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also advised Canadians abroad to return home immediately, while flights are still available.

March 16, 2020 12 p.m. EST

Quebec’s universities

On recommendations of the Quebec government outlined last Friday, March 13, the entire public education system in Quebec, including universities, has shut down for an initial period of two weeks. For most of the province’s universities, that means libraries and labs are closed, and all but essential research activities are cancelled or ramping down. Université de Montréal, for example, has called for all research teams “to immediately stop face-to-face research activities until March 27 inclusive. Research laboratories must close; only activities that are essential to the maintenance of research facilities or activities associated with experiments already initiated and deemed crucial can continue.” Students, meanwhile, are asked “to avoid showing up on campus until further notice.”

As for student residences, “an analysis will be made to determine the type of access that can be safely maintained,” according to Université de Sherbrooke. The École de technologie supérieure, for its part, said residences remain accessible, but only for those students living in residence.

As in the rest of Canada, most Quebec universities will be turning to distance and online education on or before Monday, March 30. Université Laval announced it will begin a gradual transition to online, while Concordia University and McGill University said they plan to begin offering classes online on March 23 and 30 respectively.

Université de Sherbrooke has put together a list of online teaching resources for the university community. The school has also created chat groups for each course in the winter 2020 term. Université du Québec à Montréal has also published a list of platforms and tools to facilitate distance education for teachers and students (scroll down to “modalités d’enseignements à distance”).

March 16, 2020 9:30 a.m. EST

Weekend recap

Nearly every public university in Canada has now suspended in-person classes, and most are saying this suspension will remain in effect for the rest of the winter term. There are a few exceptions, such as Memorial University and the University of Northern British Columbia, both of which have announced that in-person classes will continue until the end of day Wednesday, March 18. For the moment, university campuses and student residences remain open, although some non-essential services are being curtailed.

If you know of further updates, contact us via email at editor@univcan.ca, on Twitter and Facebook, or leave a comment below.

Online transition

The plan for most universities is to transition to online formats for delivering their classes. Some universities have announced that this transition will begin immediately, while others have said by mid-week, and still others, such as the University of Prince Edward Island, University of New Brunswick and University of Waterloo, are putting classes on pause for a week – until next Monday, March 23 – to work out logistics. Some universities, including U of Waterloo, have already indicated that there will be no in-person exams this term.

The transition to online classes will be a major challenge for universities. A sudden paradigm shift of this magnitude has never been tried before in Canadian higher education.

Perhaps typical of the planning going on, and the messaging around this, is this update from the University of Lethbridge: “To support this transition, we have invested in new technology platforms that allow courses to be delivered in alternative formats, and will advise instructors how to prepare for remote delivery. Instructors will be assisted by a dedicated team of professionals during the two transition days so that they will be able to provide as robust an educational experience as possible, given the challenging circumstances.”

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, meanwhile, said it has compiled resources from its educational developer listservs on alternative approaches to teaching and learning. “Our goal is to collate and provide these curated resources to the broader teaching and learning community. To that end, STLHE and its Educational Developers Caucus have developed a new website (www.keepteaching.ca) with resources to assist learning institutions make this shift to protect our faculty, staff and students, while still promoting learning.”

“This new website includes a curated list of resources for teaching and assessment online, convenient links to information on well-being, and links to information on responses by learning institutions. This website will be constantly evolving as we continue to share content. If you have a resource to share for addition to the website, please contact us at edc_communications@stlhe.ca or through the contact form on the new website.”

March 13, 2020

Quebec classes cancelled for two weeks

The Government of Quebec announced today that all daycares, schools, CÉGEPs and universities in the province will be closed for two weeks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. As a consequence, all classes, other academic and administrative activities and events are suspended for two weeks as of Saturday. See examples of these announcements from Bishop’s University and (in French) at Université de Montréal.

Large classes nixed

As with the Government of Quebec, the governments in Ontario and British Columbia have banned all gatherings of 250 people or more. As a result, both the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia have announced that all in-person classes with more than 250 students — and indeed all on-campus and off-campus events with more than 250 people — are cancelled. However, unlike in Ontario, where most universities have suspended all in-person classes starting today or on Monday, both UBC and UVic will continue with smaller in-person classes for now.

Class cancellations

The latest: in similar wording from other Ontario universities, Nipissing University has announced it is cancelling all classes on Monday, March 16, and Tuesday, March 17, to provide faculty and academic support staff adequate time to prepare to deliver course content in alternative ways. Starting Wednesday, March 18 and for the remainder of the term, all classes will be offered through online or alternative means.

University of Guelph, too: no face-to-face classes will be held for the rest of the term. Courses will resume Monday, March 23 “in an alternative format delivery.” The university will remain open.

And Wilfrid Laurier University: no more in-person instruction for the remainder of the term; next week, “instructors will develop and communicate a plan for alternative instruction and assessment to enable students to fulfill learning outcomes and receive course credits.”

University of Winnipeg has suspended all in-person classes and labs for the remainder of the winter term, which ends on April 3. The campus remains open — including student residences, student support services, research support services and food services.

University of Waterloo has announced it is “suspending all activity for on-campus courses for one week, from March 14 to March 23. At the end of this suspension, all in-person course activity is cancelled until the end of term, including in-person final exams. Instructors are working on alternate ways to deliver remaining course work and exams/assessments.”

University of Ottawa: Classes on Monday, March 16, and Tuesday, March 17, 2020 are cancelled. As of Wednesday, March 18, all in-person classes and labs in the current (Winter 2020) term will be moved to distance and online learning formats for the rest of the semester. Plans are currently being developed for the exam period. Exams will not be taken in-person.

Brock University is suspending face-to-face classes for the rest of this academic term and is working on a plan to move to alternative forms of class and exam delivery. “The goal will be to resume virtual classes the week of Monday, March 23 for those instructors who are able to mount their classes in a virtual environment.” The university’s campuses remain open, including student residences, and researchers and grad students will have access to their labs.

From Queen’s University: “starting on Monday, all undergraduate (excluding health professional programs) will be suspended for one week after which we will communicate our plans for alternative delivery. We need to take time to assess how our educational programs will proceed.  The university will maintain all operations. Some students may decide to return home and that is left to individual choice. Residences will remain open.”

As of Monday, March 16, until Friday, April 3, the University of Toronto is cancelling “all in-person undergraduate and research-stream Masters and Doctoral courses across U of T’s three campuses, and we will provide that teaching by other means.” (Classes today will continue as planned.) With respect to professional programs, “consultation is ongoing today to determine the appropriate course of action.” University operations continue, and all three U of T campuses remain open.

Ryerson University just announced, as of today, it will be will begin to move to online formats. “The week of March 16 will be a week of transition for the university, allowing faculty and staff time to explore and implement alternate forms of program delivery. All courses will have these alternate arrangements finalized by Monday, March 23.” Further actions: Effective immediately, all university-sanctioned international travel by students and staff is cancelled until August 31 or further notice; all discretionary Ryerson events on and off-campus scheduled from now until May 1 are being cancelled or postponed, including those planned by student groups.

Carleton University has cancelled classes for Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 17 “to give teaching staff time to prepare for alternative modes of content delivery. … Starting Wednesday, March 18 and for the remainder of the term, instruction will be delivered through online and other means. Instructors will make arrangements to complete their classes in the way that is most appropriate for their course material and learning objectives, and they will be communicating these plans with students.”

McMaster University is suspending in-person classes at the end of today, March 13. “Instructors will let students know by March 18 how the remainder of their course work will be managed and grades evaluated so they can complete their credits.” No in-person exams will be held at the end of the term. All discretionary events at the university had already been cancelled as of yesterday.

Trent University is suspending classes as of now and “plans to deliver its classes online or through other alternative means of delivery beginning Wednesday, March 18.”

York University also just announced that, beginning on Monday, March 16, all face-to-face instruction will be suspended as the university moves courses to online formats. The university added that it “is committed to completing the term and will deploy all of our resources to support faculty and students through this transition.”

Western University announced yesterday evening that it has cancelled classes starting today, March 13 and lasting until Tuesday, March 17, inclusively. This short break is intended “to provide instructors and academic support staff adequate time to prepare to deliver course content in alternative ways.” Then, as of Wednesday, March 18 and for the remainder of the term, Western will be moving its classes online. Clinical placements will continue in their current mode, and all university buildings remain open.

Ontario Tech University also cancelled classes effective today, “as we ask our faculty to transition toward online forms of delivery.” Further communication will be provided on Monday, March 16 at the latest.

University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Lethbridge have also all suspended classes for today. The temporary suspension, according to U of C, “will allow consultation with public health experts, government officials and other postsecondary institutions on appropriate next steps.”

Similarly, Concordia University has cancelled all classes from March 13 to 15, and libraries will be closed. As for what happens as of March 16, “we are finalizing plans for alternative forms of delivery and will be communicating on this shortly.” McGill University has suspended classes and exams for today, while other university operations are expected to be carried out normally. No word yet on what happens after that.

Quebec universities

Concordia, McGill and all other Quebec universities are also affected by a Quebec government decree announced by Premier François Legault yesterday banning all indoor gatherings of more than 250 people. As a Université de Montréal statement specified, this includes all courses and other face-to-face teaching activities that bring together more than 250 students.

U de M has also canceled all international teaching and research activities, regardless of whether the region is under an active COVID-19 warning. Significantly, this edict will be in effect “until the fall term” (most universities have not specified how long travel restrictions may be in effect). The university has further cancelled all professional-related travel outside of Quebec for administrative and support personnel, again until the fall.

As well, the university recommends that all members of the university community avoid any personal travel abroad. “Community members who do not respect these guidelines should be aware that they may not be covered by UdeM insurance, both for medical expenses and for cancellation of trips,” reads the statement (in French).

HEC Montréal, meanwhile, announced that all non-essential events not related to teaching and research are cancelled “until further notice.”

March 12, 2020

Classes suspended

Perhaps the most significant event in the past 24 hours was the announcement yesterday that Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, was suspending classes immediately “as a precaution.” As of today, March 12, all classes will be “moved to online delivery until further notice.” The university also suspended all other “in-person activities such as laboratories.”

“With a known case of the virus in our community, we aim to take proactive measures to prevent the spread of this illness. We understand that changes in our day-to-day operations will create challenges and disruptions, however, we believe the risk of not taking action is of greater concern to our community,” said the statement.

The move by Laurentian was spurred by the announcement that an individual from Sudbury, who had attended the Prospectors and Developers Conference (PDAC) in Toronto, had tested positive for COVID-19. “As with every year, Laurentian had a major presence at the PDAC, including many members of our community who attended,” said a statement.


Read also: It’s complicated: the ethics of pandemic preparedness and response


Risk assessed as “low”

So far, no other public Canadian universities have announced the cancellation of in-person classes. Most universities, in their communications to their campuses – such as this statement from the University of British Columbia – are deferring to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which currently assesses the public health risk associated with COVID-19 as low.

Many universities are reporting that they have plans in place if classes are cancelled. York University, for example, states that, “We have developed a comprehensive plan to ensure that we can complete the academic term in the event that we are required for health and safety reasons to reduce face-to-face classroom instruction.”

Travel, study abroad, Congress

Quite a few universities have cancelled all study-abroad initiatives and suspended most work-related travel. The University of Alberta, for example, has declared that “all travel outside Alberta not considered vital to the academic mission of the university is … suspended.”

McMaster University, meanwhile, has decided to end “all undergraduate and graduate student international travel for McMaster-related activities,” effective immediately. Graduate students with specific circumstances can request a waiver, which requires “written approval of either the provost or the vice-provost, international.”

At Western University, president Alan Shepard announced that the university “has cancelled future university-sanctioned travel for all students” and strongly encourages faculty and staff to defer travel to countries with active health notices for COVID-19. “We are also receiving inquiries related to Congress 2020 and Convocation and, at this time, it is premature to make decisions as these events are months away,” he said. (Western hosts this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, from May 30 to June 5.)

In an update today, Congress organizers have stated that “if Congress does not go ahead, all attendees will be eligible for a full refund of their Congress fee. Refunds of association conference fees will be managed on a case-by-case basis, based on association’s contingency plans.”

Internationally

On March 10, according to UNESCO, the crisis is now impacting close to 363 million learners worldwide, from the pre-primary to tertiary level, including 57.8 million students in higher education. One in five students worldwide is staying away from school due to the COVID-19 crisis and an additional one in four is being kept out of higher education establishments. Fifteen countries have ordered nationwide school closures and 14 have implemented localized closures, spanning Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. These numbers are now almost certainly out of date.

In the U.S. alone, over the past several days, more than 200 universities and colleges, including institutions such as Princeton, MIT and Berkeley, have announced they are suspending or cancelling classes, with a plan to transition courses to online platforms (see an updated spreadsheet here). Some universities, such as Harvard, have asked students not to return to campus at all, including to student dormitories, after the spring recess, which at Harvard runs from March 14 to March 22.

Have your say

How has COVID-19 affected your institution? The Canadian Bureau for International Education is conducting a 5-to-10-minute survey “to better understand how Canadian education institutions have been impacted by COVID-19.” CBIE will analyze the survey findings and plans to publish an anonymized special report “which will inform the sector’s ongoing advocacy and communications related to the COVID-19 outbreak.” Surveys must be completed by end of day tomorrow, March 13.

Tri-Agencies funding

Canada’s Tri-Agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) announced last week that funds will be made available to reimburse fees accrued by researchers who’ve had to cancel grant-related travel due to COVID-19 restrictions.



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Education

Education over enforcement: What to expect under new physical distancing rules

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The first weekend under new physical distancing rules saw both residents and law enforcement figuring out how to adapt to the new normal.

On Friday, Premier Blaine Higgs announced the province would be cracking down on violations of the physical distancing order.

Staying two metres away from another person is mandatory, except in the case of members of the same household, and in some cases at work. 

People found breaking the two-metre distance rule, or gathering in large groups can now be charged and fined between $292 and $10,200.

Keith Gagnon of Caraquet found out about the new enforcement rules the hard way. 

On Saturday, he was handed a ticket for $292 for driving with a friend he doesn’t live with. The two were on their way to get a car wash.

Keith Gagnon plans on contesting a $292 ticket for breaking the physical distancing order, because he says he didn’t know the rules had changed. (Submitted by Keith Gagnon.)

Gagnon said he plans on contesting the ticket, since he doesn’t feel it was fair for the officer to fine him without giving him a warning first. 

“I was just finishing a night shift and never knew about that law,” said Gagnon in an email to the CBC.

Despite the incident this past weekend, Gagnon said he is taking the outbreak seriously, and has been practising physical distancing as best as he can. 

“I never left my home,” he said. “I don’t want my family to get this disease.”

Education first

New Brunswick RCMP spokesperson Const. Hans Ouellette couldn’t give any specifics about new ticketing practices but said it’s something officers across the province are taking seriously.

“We’re asking people to do what New Brunswickers do so well, which is we look out for one another. So our primary focus still remains working with the communities to do everything that we can to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Ouellette wouldn’t give details of what officers might be on the lookout for, as each case is different, but said they are basing their response on advice from Public Health.

“That may include tickets or other enforcement actions for people who are not following the directive aimed at keeping everyone safe,” he said.

RCMP are urged to educate people about new physical distancing rules before handing out tickets and fines. (CBC News)

He added that ticketing is at the discretion of each officer, but not adhering to a self-isolation order after entering the province or being within two metres of someone you don’t live with are things that could potentially bring fines.

Ouellette said the officers’ first reflex should be to educate rule-breakers. 

“Are you going to see police officers out there with yardsticks measuring how far apart everyone is? Probably not. … Are we going to be stopping every car we see with more than two people in it? No.

“Our main goal out of all of this, before the enforcement action comes into play, is to have that collaborative work, that educational piece to really be able to help people make the right decisions.”

A runner and walker keep their distance from each other on the Charlottetown boardwalk. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

No numbers for tickets or fines issued have been released by the RCMP or the province.

The Saint John Police Force said no tickets have been issued under the compliance order so far.

“The SJPF is encouraging and promoting compliance,” said spokesperson Jim Hennessy in an email.

Other local police forces have yet to provide comments.

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Ottawa is handing out $2,000 cheques to out-of-work Canadians. Could a basic income be next?

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Peter Martin doesn’t get it.

Workers who have suddenly lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 crisis will soon be receiving $2,000 a month from Ottawa to keep them afloat.

And yet Martin, 59, a former constitutional lawyer who lost everything about a decade ago after a mental breakdown, struggles to survive on just $1,169 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the province’s welfare program for the disabled.

“It’s a very frustrating situation,” he said this week from his Junction-area apartment where he is self-isolating with his black cat.

“They are getting $2,000 when they have a house to live in and supports and sometimes savings — as opposed to people like us who live cheque to cheque,” he said.

Martin and other Canadians on social assistance live between 40 and 60 per cent below the poverty line and are forced to rely on community supports such as drop-in meal programs and food banks to survive.

As physical-distancing orders push many of those programs to close, Ontario is pumping $200 million into social service agencies to fill the gap.

But Martin wonders why there is a federal plan for workers that pays $2,000 a month and no financial help for people like him.

“They are giving money to agencies to provide food to people who come out of isolation to get it,” he said. “Why not just give the money to us so we can buy our own groceries?”

It is a question supporters of a basic income were asking long before the coronavirus struck China earlier this year and exploded into a global health crisis. And it is a demand they have since amplified through an online petition signed by more than 30,000 calling for an emergency basic income to help Canadians weather the storm.

Ottawa responded March 26 with the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), a monthly payment of $2,000 for four months that will go to any worker who earned at least $5,000 in the past 12 months and has lost their job as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s not the unconditional basic income that Canadians across the country asked for when they signed our petition,” acknowledged Toronto businessman Floyd Marinescu, founder of UBI Works Canada, which launched the petition March 16. “But it’s a signal that our leaders recognize the value of a basic income as an economic recovery measure.

“This emergency basic income will open the door for our government to learn about the benefits of a UBI as an economic stimulus that will benefit all Canadians — and act to make it reality,” he said in a statement on the campaign’s Facebook page.

The reason unemployed workers are being treated so much better in this crisis than people on social assistance is that middle-income voters swing elections and society’s most vulnerable often don’t vote, Marinescu said in an interview.

And that is why this is a historic opportunity.

“As many as four million Canadians are going to be applying for the CERB and will see just how precarious their own situation is. With that real, lived experience, we can rally the centre to implement a basic income for everyone,” he said.

Businesses automate to survive when times are tough, and this global crisis will see even more jobs lost to automation, Marinescu added.

He predicts more than two million Canadians who will receive a temporary basic income through the CERB may not have jobs to come back to when it runs out.

“Now is the time to push for a UBI so this next recession can be shorter and we can all come out better off,” he said.

Former Tory senator Hugh Segal couldn’t agree more.

He helped design Ontario’s ill-fated basic income pilot project, introduced in 2017 by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2017 and scrapped by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives when they swept to power in June 2018.

Because the experiment ended prematurely, the province — and researchers watching around the world — were not able to determine if sending unconditional cash payments to low-income residents improved their health, education, housing and employment prospects.

But informal surveys of those who participated showed promise. A majority who had low-wage jobs before the trial remained in the workforce. Many went back to school, and mental health improved dramatically.

Segal’s model was similar to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors that kicks in when incomes drop below a certain level.

It brought incomes for working-age adults up to about 75 per cent of the provincial poverty line, or about $1,400 a month. Individuals with disabilities got a monthly top-up of $500. It was a stark difference compared to Ontario’s current monthly social assistance benefits of $733 for people deemed able to work and $1,169 for those with disabilities.

And unlike social assistance, Segal argues his basic income model encouraged people to work because those with annual incomes of up to $34,000 — or about $12,000 above the poverty line — would still receive some support.

On social assistance, onerous monthly reporting requirements allow people to keep just $200 in earnings a month before clawbacks. It means someone on Ontario Works (OW) deemed employable can earn only $1,666 a month — or just under $20,000 a year — before they get kicked off.

Compared to the $100-billion-plus COVID-19 federal relief package, the Parliamentary Budget Office in 2018 estimated it would cost Ottawa just $43 billion in new funding to provide a national, guaranteed minimum income, similar to the one Ontario was testing. And it would support about 7.5 million working-age Canadians.

Segal, the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, says the global pandemic highlights the vulnerability of precarious workers and people with disabilities struggling to survive on social assistance.

“Once the pandemic is under control and people can relax a bit, the public and policy-makers will be taking a hard took at what went wrong and what we could do better,” he said in an interview.

“And one area for reform is the lack of agility our existing social cash-transfer systems have with respect to getting money to low-income people quickly when necessary,” he said.

Polling shows close to 70 per cent of Canadians support basic income, Segal noted.

“We already have a basic income for children through the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors and a tiny bit of help for low-income people through the GST tax credit,” he said.

“It’s not really the world’s largest construction job to put those things together and find a way to do this through a basic income guarantee for all … It’s just a question of political will.”

Public sector unions and those who worry about the collapse of social programs will oppose it, he predicted, as will those who argue paying people to do nothing will cause them to abandon the labour force.

But basic income is about more efficient cash transfers to people, not about cutting services, Segal said. And 70 per cent of people living in poverty have a job, he noted. Often more than one. A basic income could supplement that low-wage work and lift them out of poverty, he said.

The other roadblock will be government finance officials who would see such a large, annual expenditure as a limit on their ability to design and craft new initiatives, Segal said.

“Those three groups of opponents are going to be just as dug in after (the pandemic) as they are now,” he predicted.

Adding to the challenge, will be the call for fiscal restraint to bring down a deficit that will likely top $200 billion due to the crisis.

But in a minority government anything can happen, Segal said, suggesting the NDP and others could make basic income a condition of support.

“I remain really optimistic,” he said. “But I think we have to be realistic about the constraints that we’re going to have to face.”

University of Manitoba economist Evelyn Forget’s research on Manitoba’s minimum basic income experiment in the late 1970s has been a major force behind renewed interest in the concept. One of her promising findings from the rural town of Dauphin, where most low-income families received the benefit, was a drop in hospital admissions and an increase in high school graduations.

Basic income is always discussed during times of economic collapse, most recently during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, she noted.

But once the economy recovers, the idea falls by the wayside.

“One of the things we are seeing now is how limited existing programs are, and how hard it is to make them work together to make sure nobody falls through the gaps,” she said in an interview from Winnipeg.

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“It’s because we don’t have a basic income. That’s going to be hard for people to ignore going forward,” she predicted. “The limitations of those programs are becoming very, very apparent.”

Basic income could gain more acceptance after the pandemic if today’s economic measures to support business and ordinary Canadians are successful — and remain popular with the public, she predicted.

“But we are at a point where things could go in either direction,” she said.

If the government’s action is shown to be excessive or wasteful, the idea of more broader basic-income-type measures could fizzle.

“One hopes basic income doesn’t have to wear any mistakes they might make,” she added.

Economist Armine Yalnizyan, however, says a basic income for everyone is the last thing Canada needs when the crisis is over.

“Basic income helps people make the choice of not going to work,” said Yalnizyan, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation’s fellow on the future of workers.

“And when this is over, we are going to need all hands on deck. We can already anticipate labour shortages in the essential services and non-profit sector, in health care, child care, first responders — work that robots can’t do.”

For Yalnizyan and labour activists, basic services — child care, pharmacare, dental and vision care and more affordable, reliable public transit — are a better bet for the same public investment.

Building a robust system of basic services for everyone will grow the middle class and allow its members to spend money on more discretionary items, she argued.

With an aging society, Canada will need its working-age population to have enough discretionary income to keep the economy growing, she added.

“Yes, we have to focus on the most vulnerable. Yes, we have to stabilize the economy from the bottom up. Yes, we have to fill in the cracks in the floor so the whole building doesn’t collapse,” she said, noting governments are scrambling to do that now in the eye of the pandemic.

“But when we get through to the other side … we have to also set our sights on making sure those who are able to work, and can work full-time, are working. And that their work is valued.”

Increasing incomes — valuing the caring work that this crisis has highlighted — is a better economic strategy than giving people basic incomes to bolster lousy pay, she argued.

Toronto social policy expert John Stapleton is also a skeptic who says a basic income for every Canadian from cradle to grave would “never fly,” particularly with seniors who would oppose any attempt to tinker with their hard-earned benefits.

But the former provincial social services bureaucrat says the pandemic may provide an opening for a less overbearing and dehumanizing welfare system.

The ministry’s move in March to suspend monthly income reporting for people on social assistance during the crisis — largely due to the need for physical distancing — brings the program one step closer to a basic-income-type delivery model, Stapleton said.

“It could be the beginning of streamlining the system and making it less onerous on people and (case) workers,” he said. “It’s kind of like basic income through the back door.”

Yalniyzan agrees that COVID-19 may force governments to rethink support to the most vulnerable working-age adults, those who are too ill to work or who can’t work full-time. And a federal program, based on a basic income, may be the way to go.

“Through this experience, more eyes have been opened to the reality facing a lot of our neighbours,” she said. “And we have seen in real time our ability to respond together when we view ourselves as in it together.”

The question is whether that sense of solidarity will last.

Peter Martin certainly hopes so.

In ordinary times, Martin pays $740 of his $1,169 monthly ODSP cheque on rent and about $300 on medical marijuana to control his severe PTSD. The remaining $129 goes toward transportation to the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) for meals and socialization and where he earns $30 a week as a peer support worker.

But to keep staff and community members safe, PARC has suspended all peer support work and is limiting drop-in meals to people who are homeless.

Martin is paying a friend to buy him groceries out of the money he usually spends on TTC fare while he self-isolates due to an underlying health condition that makes him vulnerable to the virus.

“There are an awful lot of people on ODSP right now who are really, really scared,” he said. “We’re talking about not paying our rent because we need to buy food.”

Martin admires the heroism of health-care workers and others on the front lines helping the sick and vulnerable. And he is buoyed by the collective concern of Canadians “pulling together” to get through the crisis.

“But for people like us, this is not a crisis,” he said. “It is just another crisis.

“I just hope people remember us when this is over.”

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B.C. bylaw officers keeping a watch on physical distancing – Mission City Record

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The message appears to have been received — officers in charge of keeping an eye on physical distancing say British Columbians are steering clear of each other.

An order by Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, on March 26 gave municipal bylaw officers the power to act on gatherings of more than 50 people in public spaces or on private businesses such as restaurants that contravened provincial health orders meant to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Black Press Media examined municipalities across B.C. to see how Farnworth’s orders have been followed. Enforcement, it turns out, is often unnecessary and not as effective as a kind reminder to keep two metres apart.

Surrey

Cpl. Elenore Sturko, an RCMP media officer in Surrey, is part of a joint team that was organized by police and city bylaw officers following Farnworth’s announcement.

As of Thursday, officers had issued just nine warnings to 202 businesses that had been visited and also found parks including the popular Crescent Beach were usually quiet.

Sturko said officers have found a willingness in Surrey’s residents to do the right thing. The businesses that required a warning, she added, were not trying to flout the rules.

“We’re not seeing a lot of people willfully or purposefully putting people at risk,” she said.

Vancouver

Generally cities, and not police departments, are in charge of bylaw officers, and have been taking the lead on Farnworth’s order. Vancouver’s municipal police, for example, are not issuing tickets or taking calls about distancing.

A City of Vancouver spokesperson told Black Press its bylaw officers made 9,295 restaurant inspections and also checked on 2,658 personal care facilities. Only one restaurant, a Tim Hortons, had its business licence suspended and was forced to close for three days.

The Vancouver Park Board, meanwhile, has jurisdiction over the city’s 230-plus parks. Park board spokesperson Christine Ulmer said over 5,000 signs reminding residents to keep their space have been placed, parking lots have been closed to discourage traffic, and park rangers have been deployed to the city’s popular destinations like Kitsilano Beach and Stanley Park.

“They have found people are really responsive, really acceptive, a little sheepish and apologetic when they realize they are too close,” said Ulmer. “It’s been really positively received, which is really helpful.”

Those rangers also have the ability to issue their own fines, but haven’t yet.

“It’s not in the direction we want to go,” said Ulmer. “It’s difficult financial times for a lot of people. I think slapping heavy penalties is probably a last resort.”

Not every city has the resources Vancouver has.

Victoria

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said during a press conference Monday that her city doesn’t have bylaw officers to spare. She hoped Emergency Management B.C., which co-ordinates provincial disaster planning, would help with additional resources.

“Just follow the rules because not doing so is really costly, not only to public health but it’s really costly from a bottom line point of view,” said Helps. “We don’t want to hire more bylaw officers, we don’t want to spend more taxpayer dollars on bylaw.”

It appears police have stepped in over the last few weeks, at one point breaking up a party of young people who had gathered.

In an email to Black Press, a spokesperson for Emergency Management B.C. said compliance staff from other ministries, such as liquor and cannabis control officers, would be redeployed to support municipalities.

A joint organization by the Ministries of Public Safety, Attorney General, Municipal Affairs and Emergency Management B.C. has also been set up to support enforcement of the public health orders.

“This unified command structure will work to provide guidance to bylaw and compliance officers and look into potential issues around resources and cross-government communication,” said the spokesperson.

Not every city has seen a need for more bylaw officers.

Whistler

In Whistler, for example, a spokesperson said officers are active, but there have been few reported cases of non-compliance. That message was the same across the province in Cranbrook, according to the city’s manager of building and bylaw services Tony Luce.

“Given the low volume of complaint driven calls that we have received at least to date, we like to think the messaging from our PHO [Provincial Health Officer] is getting recognized in our community,” said Luce in an email.

Penticton

In Penticton, bylaw officers received only 11 complaints between March 25 to 30, including another about a person who wasn’t self-isolating, according to bylaw services supervisor Tina Siebert.

While bylaw officers can enforce the provincial health order, they can’t actually issue fines. In practice this means officers report back to health authorities, who then decide on penalties. Kelowna, for example, announced its own bylaw enforcement measures Friday, but stipulated Interior Health would be in charge of financial penalties.

Nelson

In Nelson, where the municipal police department administrates and supervises bylaw officers, Chief Paul Burkart said he’s advised staff that education is the goal with physical distancing. Enforcement, he added, is more about reminding residents of the rules and, if necessary, following up with the health authority.

“We’re not out there with a tape measure, because that’s not enforceable as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

And in B.C., that mostly hasn’t been necessary.

Education, not enforcement

Sturko said she hopes the public understands bylaw officers are working in good faith when they approach people on the street, in parks and in businesses.

“The bottom line is that this exercise and these functions that we’re doing are really not meant to be about punishing. What it’s meant to do is bring people into compliance,” she said.

“What we want to do is educate people, let them know what the deficiencies are, and hopefully achieve the goal which is to make sure people are doing things which have been ordered in order to help us all stay safe and healthy.”

As for the federal Quarantine Act, which the federal government has activated to enforce a mandatory 14-day self-isolation for anyone returning to Canada from oversease, while by-law may receive calls from concerned citizens over neighbours disobeying this law they cannot issue tickets.

Instead, federal officials are working with law enforcement to develop a strategy in how to ensure compliance and punish those who don’t listen with penalties and fines.



tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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