Alberta post-secondary institutions to stick with online learning through February

Post-secondary institutions started this semester online, expecting to be back in person before the end of January, but as Omicron cases rapidly increase many have opted to keep classes online for several more weeks. Sarah Komadina has the details.

Several post-secondary institutions in Alberta have announced extensions to current online learning plans.

The universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge announced Friday morning that they are delaying the return to in-person learning until Feb. 28, after Reading Week.

“We know that a return to campus as soon as possible is in the best interests of all members of the university community,” said U of A president Bill Flanagan. “Given what we currently know about the anticipated peak of Omicron, we have a high degree of confidence that we can safely return to campuses and our full winter 2022 schedule of in-person courses on Feb. 28.”

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University residences will remain open to residents and select in-person course components, such as labs or midterms, may still take place in person. Other previously announced health measures will remain in place, the universities said in a joint news release.

“The decisions we make now are not easy, but they are necessary,” Flanagan said. “Fewer points for close contact ensures that we keep the community as safe as possible while maintaining key in-person courses as well as critical operations and services.”

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U of C president Ed McCauley said shifting from remote to in-person learning and back online again has been difficult on everyone.

“Students need to know how their classes will be held, teaching instructors need time to adapt their materials and researchers, grad students and staff need to understand when and if they should be back on campus,” McCauley said.

“We all need as much certainty as possible for how this term will unfold.

“As we work our way through this semester, I want to thank all of you for the resilience and dedication you have shown. This fifth wave has been a challenge, as have the previous two years. Please be kind to one another, continue to support each other and hopefully very soon we will all be back together again.”

MacEwan University in Edmonton has made a similar decision, delaying much of the return of in-person delivery to Feb. 22. The school said a decision about the rest of the term will be made before Feb. 22.

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology announced it will continue online delivery of lecture and theory classes until Feb. 25, as appropriate physical distancing is not possible in these settings.

There is no change to in-person shops and labs, which are continuing as scheduled with enhanced safety measures. NAIT said it will make a decision about the rest of the term in February.

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology is also delaying the return of in-person learning. SAIT will continue with its hybrid model of program delivery until Monday, Feb. 28. On-campus labs will continue to run in person as scheduled.

Mount Royal University in Calgary said it is taking a phased return to in-person learning. The gradual return will extend some in-person instruction as of Jan. 24 and have all the courses originally scheduled for in-person instruction back on campus Feb. 28, after Reading Week.

Faculties are still finalizing the details of Phase 1 of the gradual return, which is scheduled to begin the week of Jan. 24. MRU said it will communicate with students to let them know if there are changes to their course delivery.

If Phase 1 is successful, MRU said Phase 2 will start about two weeks later.

“To progress through these phases and resume in-person instruction, we will assess the COVID situation regularly, monitor risks and use data to inform our decision making,” MRU president Tim Rahilly said.

The decision comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to increase in Alberta. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 786 people in hospital with COVID-19 in the province — a number that’s more than doubled in the last two weeks. On Dec. 31, there were 349 people in hospital with COVID-19 in Alberta.

New projections released Friday morning suggest Canada is set for several “intense” weeks of COVID-19 activity as Omicron continues to drive record infections and hospitalizations.

“While Canada could see a sharp peak and decline in cases in the coming weeks, given disease activity far exceeding previous peaks, even the downside of this curve will be considerable,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.

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During an update Thursday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said it’s too soon to say whether the fifth wave of COVID-19 has peaked in Alberta.

“It’s really critical to remember that in any wave we see half of our cases in the second half of the wave, and therefore we need to remain cautious,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.

“Transmission is still very high. … Our positivity rates are still extremely high and transmission has never been higher. So caution is appropriate.”

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Premier Jason Kenney added that’s he’s hopeful Alberta is in the latter half of the spike to the peak.

“But as Dr. Hinshaw says, the numbers are just enormous. They’re much larger than what our testing can identify and there will be a lot of cases if and when we come down that peak.”

The University of Calgary Students’ Union said it supports the decision made by the university.

“Like everyone, students want a return to normal. Students and the SU know that Omicron makes this not possible,” SU president Nicole Schmidt said.

The students’ union is calling on the provincial government to provide supports to university students similar to what they’ve provided to K-12 students. The students’ union would like to see the UCP government provide post-secondary campuses with medical masks and rapid COVID-19 test kits before the return to campus in March.

NDP Advanced Education critic David Eggen is also calling on the UCP to ensure all staff and students have access to N95 masks, a proper audit of air quality and air flow is conducted on campuses and to secure an adequate supply of rapid COVID-19 tests for campuses.

“The burden of having to make these important health decisions continues to fall on the shoulders of our post-secondary schools,” Eggen said.

When asked if the province is considering providing masks and rapid test kits to Alberta campuses, the following statement was provided by the Advanced Education department.

“Omicron requires us to continue to be cautious. Open dialogue between our institutions, Advanced Education and Dr. Hinshaw has helped ensure our institutions are kept up-to-date and informed,” Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in a statement.

“I have complete confidence in the ability of our institutions to ensure student learning continues safely, whether it’s in-person or temporarily online.

“I know that everyone is eager to return to in-person learning as soon as possible and I’m confident that will be happening soon.”

A spokesperson for Advanced Education added over the course of the pandemic, the government has provided on-campus rapid tests to post-secondary institutions. Mandi Johnson said to date, more than 358,000 tests have been provided to 13 post-secondary institutions that have made requests.

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