Testing is being expanded at St. Francis Xavier (StFX) University as 38 new cases of COVID-19 connected to the outbreak were announced Thursday, bringing the total to 59 active cases.
After concerns from students and faculty, the Antigonish university announced Wednesday night that faculty can now decide to proceed with in-person exams, or move them online as a “hybrid model.” Students can defer until January.
“We wanted the right to make the decisions ourselves,” says Martin van Bommel, the president of the StFX Association of University Teachers and a mathematics professor. “Many of our members believe the exam rooms and the number of students that would be in those exam rooms were not safe.”
However, he says others feel moving online would be to the “detriment” of students and that exams could proceed safely in-person.
“Our biggest concern was the lack of communication that was taking place over the last number of days,” he says.
Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, previously said the cluster is related to the university’s recent ceremony giving rings to the graduating class, as well as social events held on and around the campus over the weekend.
“So far, those infected are experiencing very mild symptoms because the cases are mostly young people who are fully vaccinated,” said a release from the province.
“Once I knew that there was cases at the X-Ring event, I knew it would get kind of out of hand as it is currently happening,” says Marie-Anne Sergent, a fourth-year student who created a petition for the university to move exams online.
But Public Health says the majority of cases have been tied to “smaller, private gatherings.”
“More new cases are expected in the coming days,” the news release says.
“My thoughts are clear on the need to fine those that break the rules,” says Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston. “So we’ll see what the investigations bring.”
There’s a long list of public exposures in Antigonish as well, and several are specifically connected to the university.
Public Health deemed exams could proceed safely in-person, according to the university, but the students’ union wanted more perspective.
“The student’s union put out a wellness check survey and we got over 800 responses overnight which was overwhelming,” says Meredith Cudmore-Keating, the vice president academic of the StFX Students’ Union. “All of the responses were like ‘I’m too anxious to study, this is really stressful, it’s really weighing on me,’ that sort of thing.”
StFX president Andy Hakin says the university has been lucky to not have an outbreak like this before, and admits this is “new territory.”
He says there are no regrets, but they’ll learn from this.
“There are so many different pieces to juggle,” Hakin says. “What we try to do is prioritize the health and safety of our students throughout.”
The PEI government, meanwhile, is asking Islanders recently who were at St. FX between Fri. Dec. 3-Mon. Dec. 6 to get tested and isolate until a negative result is received.
Hakin says 95 per cent of the StFX population is vaccinated.
Testing is being expanded in the area.
“To help with finding cases, Nova Scotia Health’s testing centre has increased its hours of operation,” says the provincial news release.
“The Public Health Mobile Unit will be in the community over the next several days and take-home test kits are being distributed by Nova Scotia Health and the university.”
— with files from Alex Cooke