Two of Canada’s largest universities are developing contingency plans to hold lectures via video conference and administer exams remotely if the spread of the novel coronavirus prompts calls to cancel public gatherings.
The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia said classes and exams are proceeding as scheduled for now, but they’re preparing for the possibility that public-health agencies will recommend social-distancing measures to reduce the spread of the illness.
Across the country, universities are cancelling travel and conferences in response to the coronavirus and preparing for what may come.
University Canada West, a small private school in Vancouver, closed its doors Thursday after the father of a student came down with COVID-19. It is among the few cases so far connected to educational institutions in Canada.
At the University of Toronto, which has a population of more than 100,000 students and staff, a planning group has been meeting for several weeks to address the response to COVID-19. The group includes people responsible for academics, student life, facilities, international students and study abroad. Among them is Vivek Goel, vice-president of research and innovation, who also led Public Health Ontario when it was founded after the SARS crisis of 2003.
Dr. Goel said universities follow the advice given by public-health agencies, but most schools will now be preparing for scenarios that could interrupt the academic year.
“We always have to be ready for these types of contingencies. If people aren’t able to come into work because they’re sick, or if we get advice not to have large gatherings of students and faculty, then we would look to online means for continuing education,” Dr. Goel said.
He said officials have made it clear it’s nearly inevitable that there will be community transmission in Canada in the weeks ahead. He suggested the university will soon be asking professors to consider how they would restructure grade evaluations if the traditional exam period is disrupted. It might mean giving extra weight to course work, for example, or having a take-home exam.
“We would look at other methods of evaluation,” Dr. Goel said.
At the University of British Columbia, the administration is looking at ways that exams could be administered to students remotely. A working group is looking into whether they could scale up the online administration of exams if such a step is necessary. The technology would “allow students to write exams remotely with the same level of scrutiny as they would experience writing an exam in a lecture hall,” said Matthew Ramsey, a UBC spokesman.
McGill University said it is considering alternative ways to hold exams should the situation warrant it.
At UBC, staff have placed hand-sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas and have stepped up efforts to inform staff and students about the measures they should be taking to minimize the risk of transmission.
Academic travel has also been affected. The University of Western Ontario, like many other institutions, has cancelled university-approved student travel to China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong. McGill said it had recalled students from China, South Korea and from Northern Italy.
Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., announced Thursday that it’s cancelling a planned conference on the Dead Sea scrolls, scheduled for late March. The Asia-Pacific Association for International Education also cancelled a conference planned for Vancouver this month.
Some students, such as those in medicine, could be placed in close proximity to the illness. Dr. Goel said the institutions in which they work are expected to protect those students as they would their own staff.
POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, March 5, 2020