Coronavirus fears prompt Ontario university to move classes online — should others?

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As health officials scramble to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak that has now infected more than 121,000 people globally, many countries have implemented enhanced measures, including closing schools and moving university and college classes online.

In Canada, Laurentian University announced on Wednesday that it would be suspending all classes “as a precaution” amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

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“As of tomorrow March 12, all classes will now be moved to online delivery until further notice,” the school said in a tweet.

Sudbury, Ont., where the school is located, reported its first case of COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Further south, in the U.S., a number of universities and colleges — including Princeton, Columbia and Stanford — have announced they will be moving their classes online and have asked students not to return after spring break.

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Should more universities and colleges in Canada follow suit?

Here’s a look at what’s going on:

What are other Canadian universities saying?

In Canada, more than 102 cases of the virus have been confirmed, with most in Ontario and B.C.

Those provinces’ largest universities say they are both waiting on advice from local health officials before making any decisions about moving classes online.

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Coronavirus outbreak: WHO declares COVID-19 a global pandemic

In a statement emailed to Global News, the University of Toronto said it is “following the directions of public health authorities” who have advised that the risk of community transmission of the virus remains low in the Greater Toronto Area.

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“The university has academic and business continuity plans that will be enacted as needed,” the statement reads. “Our plans focus on the need to ensure the health of our community and the continuity of our courses and programs.”

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Similarly, Matthew Ramsey, a spokesperson at the University of British Columbia, told Global News that the institution has been “monitoring the situation since January” and that it has been working with stakeholders to develop a plan to deliver classes and exams remotely.

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Ramsey said while “preparations are underway,” the university is waiting to receive word from local health authorities on whether those plans should be implemented.

How will students be affected?

At a press conference Wednesday, Laurentian University President Robert Haché said the purpose of the move is to “minimize the opportunity for large groups to come together and increase the risk of infection.”

“Laurentian University’s foremost concern is for the health and well-being of its students, faculty and staff and to our wider community,” Hache said.

“We are further committed to ensuring that our students have an opportunity to finish their studies without any disruption,” he continued.

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Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, which advises colleges and universities in Canada and abroad, said that for the most part, universities and colleges have the capacity to deliver classes online.

“The only thing limiting your ability to go online is bandwidth,” he said. “You’re not creating a whole interactive curriculum; that’s not what online learning, moving classes online means.

He said the main issue institutions are “wrestling with” now is how to handle exams.

“If you can’t do classes, you certainly can’t bring [students] into big gymnasiums and put them at desks two or three seats, a couple of feet apart,” he said. “You just can’t.”
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What’s more, Usher said if schools close their campuses, including their dormitories, that could leave international students or low-income students in a difficult position.

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“Where are those people going to go?” he said. “You might be keeping them safe from one type of exposure to the virus, but you may be exposing them to different types of exposure to the virus.”

Is it necessary in Canada?

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, told Global News there’s “no cookie-cutter answer” when determining whether school closures are necessary and that it depends on the situation in each locality.

“Currently, today in Canada, I don’t think it would be a reasonable option, right now, but things change,” he said. “And certainly, if we saw widespread community transmission, this would be something that should be considered to help slow down the spread of transmission in communities.”

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While Bogoch said he doesn’t think Canada is “there yet,” he said schools and large businesses should be planning and preparing in case it becomes necessary.

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“I’m not saying it’s going to happen,” he said. “But we should be prepared for that potential scenario, depending on how this epidemic evolves in Canada.”

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Stanley Perlman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Iowa, told Global News that the school closures in the U.S. are largely a response to the fear associated with the virus.

He said, though, that it in some ways, the decision to close schools “makes great sense” but that it is “very hard to make a judgment.”

“You put a group of students in a classroom with 300 people, and one or two of them are sick. There may be somebody in the room or two people in the room who get the severe version of the disease — is that risk worth taking?”

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He said, ultimately, the decision is “just people really being cautious.”

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“You know, in three years, we might say, ‘Oh, that was so silly to have done all that,’ or in three years, we may say, ‘This should’ve been done earlier because there’s so much spread, and this is a bad disease,'” he said.

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Why have more U.S. schools closed?

According to Usher, there are a number of differences between the U.S. and Canada and schools’ decisions to move classes or close campuses.

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Usher said that in Canada, the rate of community transmission of the novel coronavirus is much lower than in the U.S.

“So they’re reacting to something much different,” he said.

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Second, Usher said that in Canada, educational institutions and the public largely trust the opinion of health authorities.

“We’ve been through this with SARS before,” he said. “They trust public health authorities and are very reluctant to jump the gun and get ahead of the public health authorities.”

What is the government recommending?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has provided guidance on its website for federal, provincial and territorial health authorities when it comes to preventing and managing the spread of the virus in schools from kindergarten to Grade 12 and at child-care locations.

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According to PHAC, because there is no widespread transmission of COVID-19 in Canada, “at present, school closures are not recommended for the prevention of COVID-19.”

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Global News reached out to PHAC to clarify whether these recommendations also apply to the country’s universities and colleges but did not hear back by the time of publication.

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