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Students call on Queen’s to move in-person exams online

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A petition, signed by more than 4,600 Queen’s University students, is calling on university administration to move in-person exams online halfway through the exam period amid concerns of rising COVID-19 cases and the identification of suspected cases of the Omicron variant among the Queen’s community.

Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health on Thursday declared three new outbreaks of COVID-19 in Queen’s residences Brant House, Chown Hall and Victoria Hall, adding to two existing outbreaks at Harkness Hall and McNeil House. The university announced Wednesday that it had suspended varsity athletics, after a number of athletes were impacted by a COVID-19 outbreak.

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On Thursday, Queen’s sent an email to students and staff explaining that new health and safety measures would be immediately implemented in response to “a number of suspected cases” of the Omicron variant within the Queen’s community.

Despite the implementation of the new measures, which included transitioning any remaining classes of the fall semester to a remote learning model, the university maintained that “in-person exams will remain as currently scheduled with enhanced precautions in place.”

In an email to the Whig-Standard, the university said public health has indicated there are suspected cases of the Omicron variant among the current reported cases at Queen’s, though this has not yet been confirmed by genome sequencing.

“The university is continuing to work closely with KFL&A Public Health on measures to address the Queen’s situation as part of an overall rise in COVID-19 cases in the region,” the university said in the email.

In response to the announcement that Omicron is present in the community, Queen’s students have signed a change.org petition that has amassed more than 4,600 signatures, calling for in-person exams to be moved online in light of the public health threat of an exam hall.

“My primary concern is the public health threat that going ahead with exams causes. That’s (the) public health of the students, but also the rest of the Kingston community, because the backlog of testing that’s leading to, you know, this increased spread and overwhelming the health-care system, but it’s also a public health threat across the country as students are about to go home for the holidays,” Abby McLean, a student who started the change.org petition, said.

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McLean expressed concern that the backlog of testing will exacerbate the number of cases among students, as those who test positive or are high-risk contacts might not find out before they go to their exam.

“The KFL&A testing is so far behind that I have friends, and I’m sure every Queen’s student has a story like this at the moment, but I have friends who have tested positive for COVID-19 but haven’t been contacted by KFL&A and neither have their close contacts, (and) that lag is going to lead to even more cases spreading through 400 exams,” she said.

In response to the new outbreaks and the rise in cases across the community, Queen’s reinstated on-campus testing, which had not been running throughout the fall semester. However, students have found there are no tests available.

“I’ve heard from students that when they called very soon after it was announced, there were no tests available today and they don’t book on weekends, and that they weren’t taking tests for next week yet. So it’s kind of just proved as unhelpful as anything,” McLean said.

This experience was echoed by Katherine Taylor, a student who said her housemate was unable to book a COVID-19 test only shortly after the clinic was announced.

“One of my housemates was on the phone (this morning), and they said they were all booked up, and I heard her on the phone and the woman (on the other line) was very upset. She said, ‘Oh well, have you been contacted by public health?’ and my housemate said, ‘No, I heard from a person that I was in contact with that they are positive,’ and she said, ‘Well, there’s nothing (I) can do about that,’” Taylor said in an interview with the Whig-Standard.

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McLean explained that the informal reporting among students is happening at a faster rate than KFL&A Public Health seems to be able to get in touch with close contacts.

“KLF&A is so backed up because of the overwhelming number (of cases). It’s hard because people don’t really have that official documentation that they are a close contact that Queen’s (Student Wellness Services) is now requiring for a PCR test,” McLean said.

Taylor also said that at the testing clinic, there are so many students that they are unable to maintain social distance, despite many of them suspecting they may be COVID-positive, adding that one person she knew waited in line “shoulder to shoulder” to get tested.

The issue of social distancing extends beyond the testing clinic and to the exam halls themselves. McLean shared a video on her Instagram story of hundreds of students lined up outside exam halls, and even students crowded into stairwells as they wait.

“It seems a little questionable during COVID-19 (to) run exams for multiple classes at the same time in these gyms, and filling them up to capacity,” she said. “I’ve received photos of desks in the gym that aren’t six feet apart on either side, and the video and photos I’d say are the most concerning are the ones of students who are just absolutely not socially distance and packed into the little stairwell and wrapped around the halls.”

For students writing exams, they are forced to weigh the risk of potentially being exposed to COVID-19 or facing academic or professional consequences.

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“It’s almost like students have to make this kind of judgment call of ‘should I go to this exam and risk getting COVID and go home the next day to my immunocompromised family or should I not go to my exam and get a zero.’ And for some faculties where you’re paying $20,000 in tuition … it’s not very hard to see people going to their exams,” McLean said.

The academic consequences of not attending exams is unclear for students, as they vary between faculties and even between classes.

The university has been clear that students should not attend exams if they are sick, test positive or are a close contact, but there has been little communication to students as to what their alternatives are.

“They don’t have an action plan to ensure students who defer their exams from potential illness can finish this year on time, leaving them without potential internships and job opportunities,” Griffen Appleby, an engineering student, said.

McLean echoed these concerns, adding that some students may be unable to graduate or meet grad school application deadlines as a result of exam deferrals.

For those who do defer, Taylor pointed out that writing exams after the end of semester may disadvantage students who are more separated from the course material or unable to raise questions with teaching assistants and professors who will be on vacation.

“The professors I’ve contacted have told me that I can defer to January right now,” she said. “That’ll be after the next term has already begun, so I will have assignments, I’ll have new information and new classes being thrown at me, and I will still be expected to perform, and they said they don’t know whether it will be in-person or online yet. Who knows what cases will even be like then?”

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Appleby said the communication he has received from the university has been similarly unclear. He shared one communication from a faculty member who said that “changing the format of the exam to one that is centrally arranged through Examity (an independent exam-proctoring software) is both expensive and time consuming,” with the faculty member adding that “all of these reasons make it difficult, if not unnecessary, to change the exam to an online format.”

However, Appleby takes issue with this logic, pointing out that the university spent $350,000 to subsidize the Kingston Police for Homecoming parties citing COVID-19 risk, but has thus far been unable to provide testing or pay for a safer exam format.

“Queen’s University has constantly been pressuring us to follow public guidelines when they themselves think it is OK to put us in rooms with hundreds of people without even … keeping us six feet apart in these (exam) situations,” he said.

McLean has been clear in her ask of the university to move the exams to an online format.

“I think it’s important to recognize it’s a very nuanced situation and that for some people, writing exams in person is better for them. And so I think we should be working with student wellness services to accommodate those people. But I think, generally, in terms of public health and just in terms of the duty of Queen’s to protect the health and well-being of its students, (they should) move the rest of the exams online,” she said.

Taylor and Appleby both agree that moving exams online would allow students to stay safe while also ensuring that exams can move ahead as planned.

“The people who want to (get tested), we’re doing the right thing. We’re trying to get tested so that we can go to our exams and make sure everybody else is safe,” Taylor said.

KFL&A Public Health did not respond to comment for this story.

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