McGill ready to resume in-person teaching

Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau and Associate Provost Christopher Buddle discuss accommodations, the many layers of protection McGill has in place for maintaining a safe environment, and continuing the University’s commitment to in-person academics.

Earlier this month, Premier François Legault announced that Quebec universities could restart full in-person academic activities on Jan. 17. Starting Monday, Jan. 24, McGill will resume in-person classes for most teaching activities. To help the transition, instructors have the discretion to still teach up to 20 per cent of a course remotely, without additional authorization from their Chair or Director. Most lectures with more than 200 students will remain online.

Professors Fabrice Labeau, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), and Christopher Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs), spoke to the Reporter about what to expect from the return to in-person, accommodations, the many layers of protection McGill has in place for maintaining a safe environment and continuing the University’s commitment to in-person academics.

The Quebec government allowed universities to resume their in-person activities starting Jan. 17. Why did McGill decide to wait an extra week?

Christopher Buddle: We could have started back on the 17th, but we wanted instructors to have more time to prepare, and everyone a chance to get ready for the full return. In some disciplines, they’re very ready and want to go back to regular in-person classes on Monday, and in other areas, more of a progression is needed from a pedagogical point of view. Although there is advanced notice, it’s still very complicated to make that transition from online to in-person.

What can we expect the week of Jan. 24 to look like?

Fabrice Labeau: We expect in-person teaching and learning, and also research, to be happening progressively to make the transition smoother. With the 20 per cent discretion, we know many professors will be still teaching some courses online next week.

Buddle: Obviously, we haven’t had anywhere near our “normal” numbers of people on campus this semester, but it’s important to remember that our campuses haven’t been empty either. Since the semester began on Jan. 3, between 6,000 and 10,000 people have been on McGill’s campuses every day for research, and for teaching and learning activities in the health sciences and music, among other disciplines. There has already been quite a bit of in-person activity.

Labeau: And that really speaks to how successful the University has been in adhering to two main principles since the start of the pandemic: prioritizing the safety and well-being of our community, and staying true to our academic mission.

I sent several MRO messages to the community last week, to help people get ready for next week. One of the things I emphasized was how safe Quebec’s universities have been throughout the Fall. Across Quebec, very few people caught the coronavirus through on-campus activities. At McGill during the Fall semester, there was no evidence that anyone caught the virus through contacts in a classroom—even though 85% of our teaching activities were in person. In the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) outbreak data for mid-December, for example, a period when there was a lot of in-person activity on Quebec campuses, and Omicron cases were beginning to rise sharply, outbreaks in Quebec universities only accounted for 0.1% of the outbreaks across Quebec.

The University requires procedural masks to be worn indoors and doesn’t allow cloth masks unless they’re layered over a procedural. There’s a lot of talk right now about the efficacy of procedurals versus N95 masks. Can you talk about the differences?

Labeau: There’s a lot of confusion out there about what literature to follow. I would advise everybody to look at a report issued recently by the INSPQ. It is a compilation of all the literature about the different masks.

There’s no doubt that an N95 mask is better at isolating particles than a procedural mask, and a procedural mask is better than a cloth mask. And, of course, full-face respirators are better than N95 masks.

But the question at the end of the day is what is the suitable protection for your particular setting? And that report, which is corroborated by medical experts, says that there are not many settings in a university environment that justify wearing an N95 mask.

Wearing an N95 mask typically makes the most sense in a healthcare setting where people interact very closely with patients who have a very high likelihood of being positive. Those are not the conditions at a university. That’s not our level of risk.

Speaking of interventions, how will the University ensure that people follow safety directives such as social distancing and wearing masks?

Labeau: In the Fall, we had anywhere between 25,000 and 28,000 people on campus every day. We expect a similar load on our campus in the Winter term.

In the Fall, we had security patrols and safety ambassadors who made us aware of “hotspots,” where we saw less adherence to directives; we increased the patrols in these areas. We’re going to go with something very similar for the Winter.

This kind of presence leads to an overall environment with a very high degree of respect for the directives. Of course, it’s never 100 per cent, but that’s why we have the patrols.

Can you talk more about the increased on-campus density, and how that will work for maintaining social distancing?

Labeau: For now, we are limiting the presence of administrative and support staff to the people who directly support the activities that take place on campus or who cannot do their work from home. This will allow us to lower the density of administrative and support staff on campus compared to the end of the Fall.

There are all sorts of possible configurations for administrative or support staff on campus but, typically, the directives regarding masking are the same. People have to wear masks all the time, even when they are seated and two meters away from somebody else. The only time someone can remove their mask is alone in an enclosed room or office.

Because we aren’t calling back too many people to campus, it will greatly reduce the density in offices and administrative spaces. It’s going to make distancing a lot easier.

In spaces like cafeterias, for instance, there are precise directives. At present, we can have six people per table and one meter between tables. That’s a reduction from the Fall when it was 10 people.

What accommodations are in place for teaching staff who cannot teach 80 per cent of their courses in person?

Labeau: It will depend on the reasons, of course. For immunocompromised individuals, we have the usual accommodations that were in place last semester. That, typically, would be the main reason for these kinds of accommodations.

Buddle: Yes, there’s still a process to make sure that people who require the accommodations with respect to, for example, more chronic or long-term conditions – that’s available to them, as it has been since the start of the pandemic. In those cases, I’ll add that the types of accommodation also vary, depending on the teaching context and the Faculty. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, and I really don’t think it should be because it needs to be case-dependent and reflective of the sorts of accommodations that an individual might need.

One of the things we always need to recognize at McGill is that there’s a lot of variation by Faculty, and for good reasons. Take clinical training in a hospital setting, for example. That won’t work remotely. The same is true for some of the performance areas in music. It was really important that Faculties were able to develop their own protocols that match their teaching and learning contexts. That’s why there are some differences across Faculties. The general principle is 20%, but some Faculties have adopted slightly different approaches.

Can you talk about how the University is working to provide accommodations for students?

Buddle: There are two parts to think about. One is the short-term absences because of students having COVID, or having to self-isolate. Those accommodations, in most cases, will be at the instructors’ discretion, and they’ll try to find a way to make sure a student doesn’t fall behind in a class. Last Fall, the evidence that we’ve heard from Faculties and the Dean of Students is that the process for short-term accommodations worked reasonably well. Instructors were very flexible in finding ways to support students that requested short-term absences. That process is still in place for this term. We’re strongly promoting the idea that all instructors record their materials, whenever they can, for the benefit of students needing a short-term accommodation.

As for longer-term accommodations, it’s really a case-by-case approach because it has to match the individual issues that a student might bring forward. If there is a situation where a student requires support longer-term, then the Office of the Dean of Students will work with the Office for Students with Disabilities [OSD] to look at the individual case to see what can be reasonably put in place.

The key part here is, what do we mean by “reasonable”? From the perspective of OSD, it really means accommodations that do not put in place undue hardship. But there might be some contexts where it’s simply not possible. For example, in certain kinds of training where hands-on competencies are necessary to complete the course, an accommodation just might not be possible. I would generally say, though, the Office of the Dean of Students certainly works hard on a case-by-case basis to find a strategy for students that need accommodations.

Labeau: That’s a very good description of what we mean when we say “reasonable.” But I think the kinds of things we’re talking about are also accommodations that do not significantly change the way academic standards of a course are established. This is an extreme example, but if the request for accommodation is to not have exams in a course, we would say no to that. So, it’s very difficult to give you an answer that kind of covers every possible situation, because indeed, it’s on a case-by-case basis, and it depends on the course, on the method of evaluation, the types of conditions, and the length of the accommodation period.

Buddle: I understand why this is a source of confusion for some students and why it isn’t easy to navigate for some students, because it is very complex. We have 40,000 students with so many different kinds of programs and different contexts for reaching the learning objectives that it’s really hard to have a one-size-fits-all, simple, straightforward process for those more complex accommodation needs.

When it comes to deciding what entails a reasonable accommodation, how much autonomy does an instructor have?

Labeau: The general principles are set by the University, and also the external rules we are subject to, and then the instructor is the person who is most knowledgeable about the material and the pedagogical aspect of the call. They know if a course was designed to be mainly in-person with a lot of group work, for instance, despite it not being a hands-on course. So having that kind of course be online, where a student can’t be in a group the whole semester, defeats the purpose of the whole pedagogical setup. That’s an instructor choice that may have a bearing on what can be done in terms of a reasonable accommodation.

Some requests are not so simple, and we have people in the Dean of Students Office and the Office for Students with Disabilities who really work with the students and with the instructor to find a way to make the situation as normal as possible.

You mentioned that short-term accommodations worked well in the Fall semester. Did other experiences from Fall help inform the planning for the return to in-person teaching this month?

Labeau: Of course, today’s context is different from that of the Fall. We’re dealing with a different variant, a different impact in terms of being vaccinated or not, three doses versus two doses.

But there are huge similarities in that we see a lot of anxiety about coming back. If you go back to the summer, just before the start of the Fall semester, we heard the same kind of anxiety around the idea of coming back, and that’s completely natural because we were basically starting our first semester that would be mostly in-person since the start of the pandemic. This time around, we’re trying to go back to in-person activity after going through a major wave of a new variant of the virus, with a lot more added restrictions in society. So naturally, a lot of anxiety is building up around this.

The level of anxiety is still very high, but it’s important to remember that, last Fall, things settled down after a couple of weeks. When you look back, it was a very successful semester overall. It was way more successful than a lot of people anticipated before the semester.

Last Fall, what was driving the management of the pandemic was the idea of making sure, as much as possible, that nobody would contract the virus. Now, the public health approach is more the idea that we all have to start living with the virus, and that there may be some contamination from time to time, but there will be a limited impact on individuals. I think that’s also the way we should all look at this as we restart in-person activity now. We will continue to keep those extra measures of care we put in place for the Fall in place this time around, to make sure we have all those layers of protection.

I think some changes that will be very visible to members of our community point to the different way of managing the pandemic by the public health department here in Quebec. For instance, contact tracing used to be very detailed. But now, with Omicron being much more contagious, contact tracing is done by the individual who tests positive; they’re the ones who identify their significant contacts and tell them what to do.

From a McGill perspective, we are still asking people to call our Case Management Group when someone tests positive, so we make sure they know exactly what the processes are.

You might have also noticed that the isolation instructions have changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, whenever you had to isolate because you tested positive, or if you were a significant contact of someone who tested positive, you had to isolate for 14 days. That became 10 days, and now, for a lot of people, it’s five days. That’s related to how we’re managing the pandemic, and what the impact of being positive means for individuals and for society in general. So, we’re basically adapting to all these different ways of dealing with a pandemic, but we still have layers of protection, most of all.

Buddle: On the teaching side, an important change that we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic is providing the right kind of framework for decisions that are pedagogically sound – a change in terms of looking at how we can offer some increased flexibility for instructors who would like to do more blended learning, and also take into account some of the needs to be more flexible in the modality of delivery.

I think we’re also seeing big trends in examinations. Compared to pre-pandemic, we reduced the number of final exam seats by a third in the Fall; I think we had about 40,000 exam seatings in the Fall versus 60,000 in 2019. I expect that trend will continue as well.

I think there are some big shifts with respect to the teaching and learning that have happened through the Fall, and we’re continuing with those in the Winter term.Are teaching flexibility and decreasing exam seatings trends McGill might pursue permanently?

Buddle: There are certain trends that are very positive from a teaching and learning perspective. But it’s not about the administration deciding. It’s about what makes sense from the teaching and learning perspective – which has to be done in partnerships with the Faculties and the instructors.

What we’ve heard from instructors is a desire to have the right kinds of parameters and guidelines so that they can adapt their pedagogical approach in a way that makes sense across the University and also locally.

Would the University consider making it mandatory for instructors to record all their lectures?

Buddle: It’s not as simple as an on/off switch. There are some contexts where it’s just not possible to record things virtually.

In a recent MRO, there were examples of when a virtual version of something is just not possible, and that’s not even the full extent of it. There are other kinds of teaching activities that can’t be easily captured online, as opposed to a large lecture that might have a very passive delivery for certain kinds of content. In the end, the quality of those teaching experiences is just not there if it’s done virtually.

We’re not in a position to mandate recording, but we are absolutely in a position to strongly encourage it whenever possible, especially for those lectures that can be more easily captured online. We continue to work very closely with the Faculties to strongly encourage lecture recording, and we find in most cases that instructors are very happy to do that, especially in a lot of the larger classes. There’s a real recognition of the value of those recordings.

Under what conditions could the Winter 2022 semester move back to mostly online?

Labeau: Every decision we make is based on different factors. Of course, if provincial guidelines tell us we need to decrease the level of in-person activities, we will follow them.

We know that higher education is a priority for the government, and keeping us in-person is important.

That being said, we will have to look at that from the perspective of all our backup plans. As with our planning for the Fall semester, there are steps down from the level of activity that is nominal. We would resort to these steps if we need to do that.

For example, starting Monday we will be working with no distancing in classrooms. However, if things were to go south, we can always go back to one-meter distancing in classrooms. Of course, this would mean fewer in-person classes. But we definitely don’t want to go there, unless it’s necessary.

We will be monitoring the situation in the province, in Montreal, and at McGill to figure out what is necessary. Balancing the risks is not a trivial equation where you just look at a number and say “Going by that number, this is what we’ll do.” It’s a much more complex decision that takes into account predictions, the number of cases, number of hospitalizations, and the situation at McGill. It’s not a straightforward decision.

Buddle: There are a variety of factors that change over time. The metrics that we relied on a year ago are very different than the metrics we use now.

Labeau: Here’s an example. We set up a dashboard in the Fall that displayed a lot of different metrics to our community. People could follow the situation at McGill based on things such as how many cases we were tracing at McGill, and how many contacts we could identify. But we don’t have a good handle on these kinds of metrics anymore because of the testing situation in the province. There’s no centralized governmental way of getting tested and confirming a positive case anymore. Before, everybody had to get a PCR tests to be told if they were positive. In the Fall, we had the exact case count for McGill, just like public health had the exact count of positive people in the province. This is no longer the case.

So we will continue reporting the number of cases, but it’s going to be an approximation. We’re still asking people to tell us if they tested positive, but they may or may not do it. So, we will be watching the trends. Are we getting more calls this week than the previous week, or is it going down?

That will give us a sense of the trends at McGill, although we will never have access to the absolute number of cases.

Our dashboard is evolving; some measurements have disappeared because they’re no longer meaningful. We will try to give more metrics that will indicate to our community where we stand.