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U of C holds virtual town hall to address its response to COVID-19 pandemic

By Kristy Koehler, March 19 2020—

On March 19, the University of Calgary held a virtual town hall to address the institution’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university’s executive leadership team, consisting of university president Ed McCauley, provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall, general counsel Karen Jackson, vice-president finance and services Linda Dalgetty, vice-president research Bill Ghali and vice-president advancement Nuvyn Peters. Missing from the discussion was vice-president facilities Bart Becker who was under self-isolation following a return from travel. 

“This last month has been a very long year,” said McCauley. “These are very unusual and troubling times and this is a very rapidly-evolving situation. In the last week, large gatherings have been restricted, borders have closed, social distance has become the norm. I want to stress that today’s update is a moment in time and subject to rapid change.”

McCauley recapped the rise of COVID-19 around the world, the university’s actions taken to date, the principles used to respond to the ever-changing situation and the processes that the university has used to make decisions surrounding its response.

“We had to react to COVID-19 before it was on our doorstep,” said McCauley, addressing the university’s first travel-related steps. “We had people abroad and we acted quickly to bring them home.”

The university’s next response was to move classes and services online. 

“We moved to remote learning to reduce the sizes of crowds on our campus,” said McCauley. “I really want to thank the students and instructors who have had to make such a quick switch. I’d like to thank the countless staff who have worked behind the scenes to get the infrastructure built to allow such a rapid switch.”

The university’s crisis management team meets every morning, and usually at least once more per day, to review changes to the situation and issues that have arisen, as well as make decisions based on the most current information available. Old decisions are reviewed to make sure that they’re still relevant based on rapidly-changing information.

“Every single day is different,” said McCauley. “It is hard to predict how the situation will evolve.”

In terms of how the university is approaching decision-making, McCauley stressed that the health of people on campus is the overriding concern and that the physical and mental well-being of the campus community is paramount. 

Secondly, McCauley made clear that the university wants to make sure that no student is academically disadvantaged and that making sure people graduate on time is top of mind. McCauley also committed to open and transparent communication.

“I strongly believe in getting you the latest information as soon as I can,” he said.

The university is in very close contact with government, public health officials and other post-secondary and research-heavy institutions.

“We have had very continuous communications with the Ministry of Advanced Education and [Minister Demetrois Nicolaides] has made himself available on a 24-7 basis to answer any questions we might have,” said McCauley.

Marshall gave an update on international travel and study abroad programs. Inbound students who arrived in Calgary were self-isolating in their own homes for 14 days, or provided the capability to isolate on campus in a particular area.

The university has delayed any new professors, academic staff and new graduate students coming to campus until July 1. 

As far as students who were already travelling internationally, the university had 185 people abroad. 

“I’m happy to report that we brought them back in three waves,” said Marshall. “One hundred-and-ten of those are back or on their way. A number have decided to stay in place, and for the others, we’re working to get them back here as quickly as possible.”

The university’s International SOS program and app were able to identify where people were very quickly and work with insurers to get them back to Canada. 

Marshall indicated that U of C made the decision to begin bringing people home relatively early compared to other institutions. 

Questions were taken by email from the virtual audience, and many students were concerned about the semesters to come. Marshall stressed that there will absolutely be a spring and summer semester at U of C and that more information will come next week about how those courses will be delivered. She also noted that there are no plans to have online delivery for the Fall 2020 semester. 

While most events on campus have been cancelled until the end of June, Marshall acknowledged that the university has not yet provided information about convocation.

“We will be awarding degrees and credentials in June as we normally would be,” said Marshall, but indicated that whether or not to go ahead with a physical ceremony had not yet been decided. That information will be coming in the next week or so, and a decision to cancel the ceremony would likely see it delayed until the fall.

Other common questions surrounded student accommodations. Marshall stated that there are no plans to ask students to vacate their residence rooms, as other universities have done.

“We have just over 2200 living in residence — about 1000 are international students,” said Marshall. “We’d have to have a series of very specific events for us to close those residences. If we happen to come to those decisions we want to assure people that you will have a place to say that’s safe and will allow you to be in compliance with all the public health guidelines.”

McCauley answered the question of whether or not the university will eventually completely close. 

“It is not a foregone conclusion that the university will close,” he said. “But, it will close when it is no longer safe for it to be open. Our university campuses are important hubs for scholarship and community and we have made most services available online and will continue to facilitate remote access.”

The university is supporting staff who choose to work from home prior to a closure or those who are still coming to campus. Graduate students who are also teaching assistants are not obliged to be on campus or in their offices if they have no TA duties. Marshall called on TAs to provide their students with a remote way to contact them, but stressed that it was an individual choice whether or not to come to campus.

Many questions have been directed to the university regarding the individual who tested positive for COVID-19. Marshall reiterated that personal privacy is important and that limited information could be given.

“The individual is a staff member whose exposure was minimal,” she said. “Communicable disease experts were brought in and the risk of transmission was low. We followed up with anyone who was at risk for additional exposure. With an abundance of caution we also closed three laboratory facilities in the science precinct to ensure that transmission was kept low.”

A question regarding the budget was directed at McCauley, who stressed that the priority at the moment was health and safety, not finances. 

Monthly parking charges for staff however, are not being cancelled or deferred. Dalgetty indicated that this, as all other decisions, is continually being reviewed. For those uncomfortable with taking public transit, she added, Lot 10 and McMahon Stadium will offer free parking.

The university environment in the future, post-COVID-19 crisis, has been a topic of conversation online and a question was posed as to whether or not the university will continue to provide online options for students after things return to normal, now that we know it’s possible.

“We’re learning lessons hour-by-hour-by-hour,” said McCauley, who stated that course delivery in the future “might include using some of the lessons that we’ve learned in terms of changing our pedagogy.”

Marshall indicated that U of C was already involved in a pilot project to take about 20 elective courses online in September before the pandemic.

Students’ Union president Jessica Revington challenged the withdrawal dates for courses, asking how the university will support students who want to remove themselves from their courses without taking a grade of W on their transcripts. 

Marshall responded that the academic committee will be meeting later in the day in order to address some of these concerns. Another concern being addressed at this meeting is the issue of assessments and how to ensure academic integrity. 

“I want us to start from a place of trust,” said Marshall. “It is not the majority of students who cheat on exams. It’s important for me to say that I think people are generally good people and we have to start from a position of trust with our students.”

The University of Alberta has moved to allow for a pass-fail system, but U of C is not doing so. 

“It’s very important to maintain our assessment standards as well as a marking and grading system. There are a variety of reasons to do that — we think it’s student-centric,” said Marshall, reiterating that grades are important for those wishing to continue to post-graduate work.

In the coming days, there will also be an announcement about how grad students and teaching assistants will be paid for working above and beyond their normal hours in getting courses moved online.

Dalgetty addressed the situation of food services on campus, calling The Landing, the main source of food for students living in residence, “critical.” Public health guidelines are being carefully adhered to and the fact that many students rely on the outlet for all of their meals was acknowledged.

While some outlets, like Brew n Blendz, are closed, Dalgetty said that many of the vendors “are trying to support the campus and are staying open, albeit limited hours.”

Marshall also noted that mental health supports are available at the SU Wellness Centre and that she believes it is important, even though the fitness facilities are closed, to keep active outside during this time. 

Ghali addressed the question of research and said that U of C is “trying to continue with its research enterprise” while still observing social distancing.  

McCauley ended the town hall by acknowledging the fears of staff, faculty and students.

“I know this is scary,” he said. “But I take really great comfort in the fact that we are tackling this together.”

U of C has a COVID-19 website with more information.

Information from Alberta Health Services can also be found online.

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