Nova Scotia

St. FX changes exam policy after pushback over COVID-19 outbreak

In the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University, the school is changing its exam policy to allow online exams, which is something the faculty union had been calling for. However, it will be up to professors to decide what they want to do.

School says it will permit online exams, but it's up to individual professors to make the decision

The St. FX outbreak has seen 21 positive cases for COVID-19 as of Wednesday. (CBC)

In the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University, the school is changing its exam policy to allow online exams, which is something the faculty union had been calling for.

On Wednesday, the province said 21 positive cases have been confirmed at the Antigonish, N.S., university. This includes the 12 previously announced by the school Tuesday. The school is expecting more cases in the coming days, and in-person exams are set to begin Thursday.

University president Andy Hakin initially said there were no plans to reschedule in-person exams, since exam settings are considered a lower risk environment because of physical spacing, limited interactions and students being masked.

However, the university changed its position Wednesday night. In a statement, it now said there are two options for exams:

  • In-person exams can go ahead. However, students who are unable to attend or uncomfortable writing them in person can defer/postpone the exam until January.
  • Online exams or take-home ones will be permitted, but it's up to the professors to make the decision.

The St. FX Association of University Teachers held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss exams.

"Given the current environment, we would suggest individuals move their examinations online where feasible,"  Martin van Bommel, the president of the St. FX Association of University Teachers, said in an email to faculty members.

The union did not outline how professors should conduct online exams. It is also pushing the administration for "appropriate messaging and planning" for the return to classes in January.

Cluster related to X-Ring events

In a news release Wednesday, the union also said it was deeply concerned with the lack of communication from administration around the outbreak. Their members noted that exposures might have happened not only on the weekend, but on Monday and Tuesday before classes were suspended.

Hakin's Tuesday statement did not speculate on the origin of the infections. But Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, has said he is expecting a cluster of cases related to a recent X-Ring ceremony, where students in their final year receive the highly recognizable school ring, and a number of sanctioned and unsanctioned events held over the past weekend.

Chris Frazer, a history professor and a member of faculty union executive, agrees that in-person exams don't feel safe.

"There is a combination of anxiety, worry, and I think probably now some anger, starting to surface," Frazer told CBC's Information Morning on Wednesday. "We're quite concerned about the welfare of our students."

Frazer first heard about the issue Monday morning, when students began emailing to say they would miss class because they believed they'd been exposed to COVID-19 and were awaiting test results.

Sanctioned or unsanctioned, Frazer said they know of at least two on-campus events where rules weren't followed: a party at the Golden X Inn student bar and a dance in the Bloomfield Centre's MacKay Room.

Every report Frazer has heard is that the MacKay Room was filled with hundreds of people and maybe "a couple of dozen" were wearing masks. 

Frazer said the university's comments that exams are safe ring hollow, given it apparently assumed it had the right measures in place to keep people safe during various X-Ring events.

They also noted that in a small university town, there is no real divide between campus and the community. The people exposed to COVID-19 at campus events have likely since been in every local bar, store and restaurant, Frazer said.

A nurse wearing blue gloves handles a COVID-19 test swab.
A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. A mobile testing unit will be at the St. FX campus on Wednesday and Thursday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

At least one local business, The Justamere Cafe, posted on Facebook that it had closed Wednesday to allow staff to be tested after being the site of a COVID-19 precaution notification over Saturday and Sunday.

"It's a real concern. It's not just St. FX, this is the community of Antigonish that's at issue," Frazer said.

However Jack Irvin, president of the St. FX Students' Union, said rules were still followed at the Bloomfield Centre dance, which was hosted by the union.

Irvin said there was proof-of-vaccine checking at the door, and there were rapid COVID-19 tests available on site. If masks were off, it was only when people were eating or drinking, Irvin said.

"We had security all around. If they were to ever see a mask down, they would go up and remind people to put their mask back on," Irvin told CBC's Maritime Noon on Wednesday.

The current cluster of cases is "definitely concerning," but Irvin said the students' union is doing what it can to make sure students are being safe.

But fourth-year student Marie-Anne Sergent attended the Bloomfield Centre's SuperSUB event last Friday and again said "most people" weren't wearing masks.

Marie-Anne Sergent is a fourth-year St. FX student who received her X-Ring last week. (CBC)

"It just wasn't all that supervised ... there wasn't really anyone there to tell people to put their masks on," Sergent said Wednesday.

She said so far she knows six people who have tested positive for COVID-19, all of whom were fully vaccinated, as well as some parents.

Sergent said a lot of students heading into their first exams this week are having to worry about their health while also being blamed for the outbreak due to X-Ring events.

COVID-19 notifications issued

An online petition created by St. FX students asking to halt in-person exams had reached 2,800 signatures by early Wednesday afternoon.

Health Minister Michelle Thompson, who represents Antigonish, said Wednesday the situation is still evolving and the province and school are working to get on top of the situation.

"In the next day or so we'll have more to say about the reach ... of the outbreak, and how we're going to best respond,' Thompson said.

Thompson also said she knows the school "worked really hard to ensure that protocols" were followed around X-Ring events.

CBC contacted St. FX to request an interview with the president and vice-chancellor, but did not receive a response.

Nova Scotia Health has issued a COVID-19 precaution notification for at least one class, Cults and Alternative Religions, from Dec. 2 between 3:45 p.m. and 5 p.m. AT at the Coady Institute.

Public Health will follow up with any close contacts of confirmed cases, but anyone in this exposure should book a PCR test and watch for symptoms.

An exposure notification for the X-Ring SuperSUB event at the Golden X Inn has also been issued. Anyone who attended or worked the event between 9 p.m. on Dec. 3 and 1 a.m. on Dec. 4 is considered a close contact with a positive case, the notice said.

Anyone who is fully vaccinated must self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 until Dec. 18, and book a PCR test. If they have or develop symptoms they must self-isolate, book a PCR COVID-19 test, and stay isolated until they get a negative result.

Testing on campus

Those who are not fully vaccinated must self-isolate regardless of whether they have symptoms. They can then book a PCR test immediately, and a second test six or seven days after the last exposure. They can stop isolating on Dec. 11 if their last test was negative.

Or, they could self-isolate for 14 days straight until Dec. 18 at 11:59 p.m. and be tested afterwards.

If issues of non-compliance with public health mandates are discovered, health officials will work with enforcement officials, Premier Tim Houston said Tuesday.

In general, anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 should arrange for a PCR test at a local testing facility immediately.

Nova Scotia Health's mobile testing unit will be at the university's Keating Centre at 1100 Convocation Blvd. Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

With files from Preston Mulligan, Michael Gorman, Information Morning, Maritime Noon