St. Francis Xavier University’s board of governors made a decision last week for everyone in Antigonish.
The town of just over 4,100 will, as usual, have its population nearly doubled in September by returning undergrads.
Forty per cent of those students are expected by the administration to come from outside the maritime provinces.
Except it won’t be a normal September.
“I understand why they made that decision, when you look at Canadian statistics and things coming under control,” said Dr. Brian Steeves of lull in COVID-19 spread.
“It is worrisome of course that there could be a super spreader event. That’s where you are putting thousands of people in a confined space, like a university campus. “
Beyond being a family doctor, Steeves is also the medical director of the R.K.MacDonald Nursing Home.
Unlike the students who will be coming from across Canada, the 126 residents at the R.K. MacDonald and the two other nursing homes in town are at a high statistical risk to die from COVID-19 if they contract it.
After three cases early in the pandemic, including one staff member at the R.K. MacDonald, Antigonish has been free of COVID-19.
Staff at the university got their first look earlier this week at St. F.X.’s plan to protect them, their students and ultimately the entire town from an expected second wave in the fall.
The plan, which was approved by chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang, does demand a significant reordering of campus life.
Its proscriptions include:
- Only single rooms in dorms.
- Students will be expected to complete a self screening before leaving their rooms and report any symptoms to 811 and school staff.
- Mandatory non-medical mask use on campus and in classrooms.
- Social distancing across the campus, including meal hall where capacity will be cut by half.
- Common spaces will be cleaned daily and high contact areas like doors and washrooms twice daily.
- Students won’t face mandatory COVID-19 testing when they arrive from outside the province but will have to follow whatever isolation protocols are in place at the time.
On Thursday, St. F.X. president Kevin Wamsley spoke with 800 families of students via three virtual townhalls.
“This is not the university of 2019,” said Wamsley.
“…I said to those families, it is your responsibility to understand those protocols before you arrive, and to follow them to the strict letter of the law when you arrive in the town.”
Among the motions passed last week by the university’s board of governors was one that made not obeying COVID-19 related protocols a major violation of the campus code of conduct that would result in an investigation by school authorities and potential discipline action.
Asked why they aren’t demanding students coming from outside the Atlantic bubble to take a COVID-19 test, Wamsley said the school was advised by public health to lean on social distancing rather than testing.
“A test is just a moment in time,” said Wamsley.
The school’s faculty are having mixed reactions to the plan.
“We hope preparations are successful in limiting the spread,” said Martin van Bommell, president of the St. F.X. Association of University Teachers on Friday.
“Just like everyone else we’re unsure on how (the pandemic) will progress and what might come. We fully appreciate everyone’s concerns, many of our members are among those concerned.”
Bommell added that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the plan and believes that face to face instruction is critical to the university experience.
Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s and Cape Breton University won’t be hosting students on campus this fall due to the pandemic. Acadia in Wolfville, however,will.
Some in Antigonish aren’t satisfied with the added risk St. F.X.’s decision places on local residents.
“It really bothers me that they’d put their needs ahead of those of the town,” said Marina Anstey, a 68 year old diabetic with arthritis and high blood pressure.
“We have a lot of seniors and immune-compromised people in this town.
She’s also a St. F.X. graduate.
“Students who come here don’t want to self isolate, they want to party,” said Anstey.
With the looming potential of the virus’ return, whether via students or many other possible routes, Steeves and the staff at the R.K. MacDonald have been preparing to avoid a situation like what occurred at Northwood Manor.
They’ve already had a dry run.
The nursing homewent into lockdown after a staff member tested positive in March.
Residents and staff who’d had contact with that member were put into isolation.
All staff suited up with full personal protective equipment and by the following morning extensive testing had been done of all potential contacts.
It didn’t spread.
“Our staff were awesome, they did a wonderful job,” said Steeves.
So now the nursing home, like the town and everyone else for that matter, is waiting to see what the fall brings.