Are universities doing enough to stop student spread of COVID-19?

·5 min read

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Nova Scotia's central region, and with most of the new cases in the 18 to 35 age range, many are wondering about the role of universities in making sure students are following the Public Health guidelines.

Two off-campus Dalhousie University students tested positive for the virus over the weekend and a house party on Edward Street with about 60 people took place Friday night. It was broken up by Halifax police and one $1,000 ticket was issued.

"I live in a university community and there are definitely more parties going on than that one," said Michelle Scully, a third-year Dalhousie student who lives off campus in Halifax.

Scully said while she receives emails about Public Health guidelines from the school, at no point has Dalhousie told students there would be academic consequences for not following Public Health protocols.

"If people continue to have such large gatherings, I think they need to enforce further consequences," she said.

Verity Turpin, Dalhousie's acting vice-provost of student affairs, said the university expects its students to "share that responsibility" for keeping the university and surrounding Halifax community safe and healthy, which includes avoiding large gatherings such as parties.

"In the case of any event off campus, I think it's important to recognize that at Dalhousie, we look at our students as independent adults," Turpin said. "They are responsible for following all of the laws in our province when they decide to come back and live as part of our community."

Turpin said the school is in constant contact with students, such as sending out emails and notifications from the Dalhousie app about Public Health guidelines, as well as advisers and faculties speaking directly with students about the requirements.

St. FX, Acadia address off-campus parties

Other universities in the province have made an effort to crack down on large student gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if those students are living off campus.

Both Acadia University and St. Francis Xavier University required students to sign a code of conduct form, telling students they would face discipline or academic consequences for breaching health protocols. These universities both have in-person classes this semester.

At Acadia, the university president, Wolfville's mayor and the student union president went door to door, visiting houses and speaking with students directly about following Public Health guidelines. Turpin said student ambassadors from Dalhousie did similar door-to-door visits in neighbourhoods surrounding campus.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

St. FX has also taken away practice and training privileges for student-athletes after a large off-campus party. St. FX said at the time students found to have violated the school's code of conduct could face suspensions. The university also did its own investigation into the event.

A Saint Mary's University spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday that "a SMU community member" tested positive for COVID-19.

Cale Loney said in an email on Wednesday that the university has been sharing the health protocols with students and that "violation of those protocols can be subject to discipline under the university's code of student conduct."

Dal's Faculty of Health takes more direct approach

While Dalhousie as a whole has not made clear that there will be academic consequences for those who disregard the COVID safety measures, the Faculty of Health decided to do just that last month.

Dean Dr. Brenda Merritt said students in her faculty, roughly 1,500 of which take part in on-campus learning this semester, were given an honour statement this semester.

In it, students had to agree to stay up to date on and follow the current health requirements, and failing to do so "could result in dismissal or suspension on the grounds of professional unsuitability."

"We felt strongly that this is part of our identity as health professionals and health researchers that we should be doing this," Merritt said.

"We did hear some feedback from students that they wanted something like this, they wanted their peers to be accountable, so to raise the feeling of safety on campus and in clinical placements."

Eric Woolliscroft/CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/CBC

These students are also using an in-house COVID pre-screening app before they attend any face-to-face classes. Merritt said so far, these students seem to be following the rules.

"From what I'm hearing, they are really communicating well with each other about it and calling each other out on things," she said.

"They are taking this very seriously. They know that if we have an outbreak on campus, their programming stops."

Merritt said there is a "rippling effect of a shutdown," which would mean pharmacists, nurses and other health students would not graduate on time, causing "a big strain" on the healthcare system.

85 of November cases in ages 18 to 35

A spokesperson for the province said that of the 118 cases reported in November as of Tuesday, 85 were people between the age of 18 and 35. The province could not offer a breakdown of how many of those cases are university students.

Halifax Coun. Waye Mason has been calling for more fines to be given out to those involved with the Edward Street party — which he adds were "probably" Dalhousie students — and that the university needs to step up.

"Dalhousie has to take responsibility, both for helping to address the policing issues that happen in the neighbourhood around the university, and in going out and educating students when they are off campus about what the expectations are," he said.

"Unfortunately this year Dalhousie chose not to participate in funding Dal Patrol or going out with the police to knock on doors in the problem neighbourhoods. I think that's certainly something that the neighbours, and I, would like to see happen again."

During Tuesday's news briefing, Premier Stephen McNeil said there will be stronger enforcement for illegal gatherings going forward, "including a $1,000 fine for every person who walks through the door."

"All of the universities have been supportive and we will continue to work with them," he said. "It's a critical demographic that we will need to be vigilant on and keep on top of."

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