March 12th 2020 - Alex Usher
Things are happening so quickly that I am starting to think I need to temporarily turn this blog into a full-on everyday Coronavirus feed. A lot has happened since Monday.
Overseas: In Austria, the government has told  all universities to halt lectures and move online as much as possible . It is unclear from the stories I have read whether there this is an open-ended or time-limited decision. Greece closed all of its universities on Tuesday for a period of two weeks. Again, information is incomplete, but it appears that this is a simple shut-down with no shifting of classes online (I suspect this has something to do with the fact that wireless coverage is much less dense in Greece than Austria). In Spain, decisions seem to be regional in nature: on Wednesday morning, governments in  Madrid, Vitoria and La Rioja suspended classes at educational institutions for 15 days  (again, closure, not “move online”). In France,  a half-dozen universities and IUTs closed on Tuesday , all in “hot-spot” areas such as Oise, Haut-de-France and Corsica; at least one institution is selectively closing classes based on size (classes with under 50 students are ok, over 50, they are suspended). In Portugal, institutions (and in some cases individual faculties) are making their own decisions and  an awful lot of them, including the University of Lisbon, are now closed as of Wednesday . Elsewhere on the continent, closures seems to happen on an institution-by-institution basis as soon as the first student or staff member is exposed, for example this  business school in the Rhineland . Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, in response to a surge in coronavirus cases, Denmark ordered a full two-week closure of all educational institutions, so suddenly that it does not appear that institutions had time to make plans to go online.

United States: As of last Friday, there were only one or two institutions where classes were suspended. By Wednesday morning there were around a hundred, including some of the biggest names in the business: Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, etc. (Bryan Alexander is keeping a useful running list of closure announcements  here ). Until Tuesday, the closures were happening almost exclusively at institutions where a student had tested positive for COVID-19. That changed when Princeton and Harvard both decided to shut down essentially as a precautionary measure: dozens of institutions followed suit, partly because they judged it to be the right thing to do but partly because if Harvard is doing it then everyone has to do it.

Now, the closure issue is multi-faceted and it doesn’t seem to mean quite the same thing everywhere. There’s a difference between closing the university (close down all workspaces, kick students out of dorms) and simply suspending classes. Even suspending classes can be done in a couple of different ways. In some places, classes are suspended full stop ( Berea College, for instance, simply ended the semester outright ). In most, through, there is some kind of commitment to “move classes online” (it’s hard to tell what that means in practice). In some places, the decision to suspend was made easier by the fact that Spring Break is either taking place this week or next week, thus buying institutions some time to manage the migration to on-line. Some institutions have put time limits on the closure (e.g. “classes will resume March 30”), but those that have said they are moving online seem to have avoided making any commitment about a return to regular classes.
The question I get most regularly online is: “why aren’t Canadian universities doing the same”? And basically, I see three reasons. The first is that the number of cases of community transmission (that is, cases contracted inside Canada, as opposed to picked up while travelling or while trapped in some godawful cruise ship) in Canada is still (as of Wednesday AM) only in single digits. So even if they were adopting the “Harvard Standard”, which is “close when you start to see community-transmission cases in your local area”, it would only apply to institutions in Sudbury and in BC’s Lower Mainland.

(And, literally as I write that sentence at 12:11, word comes through that  Laurentian has suspended on-campus and moving instruction online until further notice . Amazing.)

The second reason is that in Canada (Laurentian aside, apparently), universities are reluctant to get out ahead of what trusted public health authorities are recommending. I mean, think about it: if a local university closes, it puts the government in an unwanted bind about what to do about primary and secondary schools. Do you really want to do that, especially if the public health authorities are saying it’s OK to leave schools open? In the US, on the other hand, it is widely understood that public health authorities are in chaos and it is employers in many cases who are taking the lead on social distancing measures. Universities, especially those who study public health and understand exactly how much of a shitshow it is, are probably among the best-placed employers to know how and when to take radical measures. And they are doing so.

(One might argue that American institutions are over-reacting, or that Canadian ones are under-reacting. And both are possible: I’m not here to second-guess public health authorities in the middle of a pandemic. I am just explaining different institutional reactions/motivations).

The third reason is: look, closures are  really  complicated. Harvard basically dumped all of its students – some of them low-income students or international students who don’t necessarily have anywhere else to go –  out on the street  (UK institutions have  basically told the government they will not comply with full shutdown orders  precisely to prevent that kind of things happening). So: do you shut the institution or suspend classes? If you suspend classes do you move them online or not? If you shutdown, under what conditions do you re-open? If the shutdown occurs before the end of the school year, what do you do about assignments which cannot be completed online (e.g. labs)? What in God’s name do you do about finals? (legal tangle: is the syllabus, and the weighting of grades for tests and projects it outlines, a legal contract?). These take time to roll-out properly. And frankly until last week, shifts of this magnitude were really not being contemplated by very many people, so it’s understandable to take extra time where it’s available. 

(12:41. The WHO just declared COVID-19 a pandemic.)

I know there are a lot of people working hard in universities to try to prepare for this, but if there is a genuine complaint to be had about our institutions’ performance it is that the general  communications strategy (“we are vigilant but everything is OK for now”) probably ceased to be a useful one on Tuesday. It is very unlikely Canada is miraculously going to be spared the virus. Shutdowns of one type or another are inevitable and the only real question is when. Faculty and students (and parents, especially if they have kids in residence or study-abroad) deserve to be told what the contingency plans are so they can prepare. There is a lot of nervousness out there; more than there needs to be.

Stay safe, everyone.