Dr. Keshen interviewed on back-to-campus plan

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A caricature of Jeff Keshen. Michaela Aguilar

Despite the highest case counts we’ve ever seen in the province, U of R students return to campus in five weeks

Until December 21, 2021, most courses at the University of Regina were expected to be delivered on campus in the Winter 2022 semester. Due to concerns on the spread of Omicron, the highly contagious COVID-19 variant currently prevalent in Saskatchewan, courses were later moved to remote delivery until at least January 22, 2022.

The U of R has since announced that starting February 7 all courses and laboratories originally planned to be delivered on campus will begin returning from remote delivery to their original format, and will be required to resume by March 1 at the latest. U of R President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Jeff Keshen was interviewed on January 21 about the current back-to-campus plan for courses.

Could you give the elevator pitch of what your position is at the university?

I guess what we were trying to do is to balance as best we could all the concerns that people do have on both sides. So we know that there’s a lot that’s out there when you think about it. There’s students who live out of town that will have to come back, there are many students who are suffering because they’ve done two years of their degree at home, there’s the wider concerns over Omicron and the way that it spreads.

We do know that the peak has not been reached yet in the province and there’s going to be concern also about hospitalizations, and we also know that within the broader university sector and the broader societal sector people are back…We also have to be aware that there are professors who are concerned about coming back to crowded classrooms, and by March 1, after the break we thought, “Okay, we’re going to be able to provide – at least to some extent for those last six weeks – something that’s a near-normal circumstance to what we intended in the first place.” I know it’s not an elevator speech but the thing I want you to understand is the thinking that went into this.

You’re not going to get unanimity in what the best path forward is. You can see it across the country where you have different provinces doing different things, different states doing different things, different businesses doing different things, so I think everybody’s trying their best and that’s what we’re doing to try to strike that balance of bringing us back but not in a way that could be leading us to a huge amount of risk.

In the January 17 email that came out the announcement that we had a plan coming out you said that classes and laboratories could be returning “as early as February 7,” so I was wondering what sort of criteria is being used to determine when a class or lab can come back?

I believe what we’re seeing is that some cases, for example if you look at engineering, there’s some accreditation issues that they have to be aware of. They have external bodies making sure they have the requisite amount of in-person activities. There are some areas like that as well, I imagine that you would see some of that in nursing, probably even in social work…So I think strategically, it really will come down to the Deans’ level.

I think it depends upon the particular area, and I’d say especially in areas like science and engineering because of the necessity to ensure that our students are prepared. I think that some of those students in those areas, I’m not going to say for certain, but I think some of them will have concerns to make sure that when they go out into the next level or when they’re graduating that they show that they’ve had the experience necessary to make them ready and competitive in the marketplace post-graduation.

URSU President Hannah Tait has voiced some concerns about courses that have required attendance or participation, they have grades attached to those things, saying that students who are actually feeling sick might feel pressured to go to in-person classes when they should be isolating. Are there any accommodations being put in place to make sure students don’t have to balance that risk between causing an outbreak or taking a dock in grades?

I understand that would be easiest of course if there were a hybrid option, that would solve the problem completely. The student who wants to come back can, and those that feel that they can’t for reasons of health need not come back…I would say that if a student has that concern, I would encourage them to bring that forward and we will deal with that accommodation especially if it’s medical.

I would say that I understand Hannah’s concern and I am empathetic to that situation as well, and I would also like to know. I don’t know specifically and I would probably want to dig in with the Provosts to see whether and to what extent that is actually happening. It would be quite awkward if it is, especially if it’s in person.

Who would you recommend students do contact if they find themselves in that situation?

Give the professor the chance to rectify the situation, number one. Number two is if you can’t, students should be going to the Chair of that department to make their concerns known. If it’s straightened out at the Chair level that is excellent, if the student feels that they haven’t been given due regard, justice and that, it needs to go to the Dean. After the Dean if it doesn’t, student needs to go to the Provost, and if necessary to the President.

Are there any current plans to have a contract tracing system in place or something like the check-in-at-the-door system we had when campus first reopened, or is it going to stay like the current system where you can walk in, walk out at your leisure?

As far as the contact tracing is concerned and checking everybody at the door, we won’t be able to do that anymore because I just think that essentially at every institution that’s not being done at this point in time. It’s really difficult for us to have those resources to do it, and I think that every place has basically said that if you find yourself feeling ill, self-isolate, ensure that you let the people know that you’re with, test and act appropriately, but no we won’t be doing that going forward…I will say, is the system foolproof? No, it’s not.

I just think that that’s where we’re at more generally as a society, we see that cases are going up, and positivity rates are going up, thankfully the severity of when people are getting it is not as profound…especially when we see that there might be very high hospitalization rates in early February. Hopefully by the beginning of March we’ll see that start to taper down.

On March 1, 2021, there were 1,551 [COVID-19] cases that were known of in the province – had been tested for – and as of today there’s 12,199 active in the province and that’s a number that’s consistently built from March until now. If you look at case trackers, it doesn’t seem to be coming down. So if you could sum up, how would you say that the university’s ensuring that students, staff, and faculty will really have a safe return to campus? 

It’s a good question especially in terms of the statistics that you quote, and I think that that’s something that clearly does worry people. I think it’s a little perhaps – again I’m not an epidemiologist, and I’m not a person who deals with viruses as well – I think that we’ve learned some things along the way in terms of health and safety and densities, enhanced ventilation, and self-care with masks and handwashing…Omicron, while it’s more contagious with the vaccines that we do have and the number who are vaccinated, while it doesn’t prevent you from getting it absolutely, I wouldn’t deny that as well – the impact of it and our ability to recover from it seems to be putting us in at least a better spot as far as that goes.

I can’t promise students that they won’t get it – we’ve had outbreaks on campus, I would not presume to make that promise. Will I think that a number of students and faculty will get it? Yeah, I think we’re already seeing it in Saskatchewan that we’re going to get it…I think that for us, we’re trying to make the right decision based upon what we know of our constituency and the feedback that we’re getting, trying to make the right decision on the basis of minimizing risk for our students, but also trying to respond to give them some hope of coming back at least to some extent…We’re doing our best to serve our students, our professors, and all the various views that are very well intentioned by everybody. 

According to the Government of Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 cases tracker at dashboard.saskatchewan.ca/health-wellness/covid-19/cases on January 21, 2022, Saskatchewan’s seven-day average of new cases is currently 1,240, with nearly two of every five new cases being identified within the age group of 20-39. Of the 1,233 new cases reported on January 21, 685 involved people who’d gotten both vaccine doses at least 14 days before they contracted COVID-19, and another 274 of new cases had received their booster shot at least 14 days prior to their positive test results.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

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