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Analysis: McGill’s COVID Protocol

Update: The September 17 version of this article stated that students would only be notified of a potential exposure if they were at a medium or high risk of contracting COVID-19. To the Daily‘s knowledge, that statement was accurate at the time. However, according to an email sent to the student body on September 22, students should be notified if an individual who has reported a positive test for COVID was present in their class 48 hours before developing symptoms or receiving positive test results. That email will also clarify whether students have been in low, medium, or high-risk contact with the individual.

Note: the figures cited in this article are current as of September 17. Due to the rapidly-changing nature of public health guidelines and case numbers, the following information may not be entirely up-to-date.

Public health guidelines vary from province to province, as do universities’ requirements for attending school on campus. To get an idea of how McGill’s COVID guidelines stack up against other large universities, the Daily has analyzed the COVID precautions of large universities across Canada.

Case Tracking

Universities’ policies concerning the report of COVID cases on campus vary widely; some universities provide students with a week-by-week case count, while others do not report case counts at all. McGill makes their case tracker publicly available, as do the Université de Montréal (UdeM), the University of Toronto (UofT), and the University of Alberta (UofA). However, the information included in case trackers varies from school to school. McGill’s website claims that all reported positive cases are included in case-tracking figures, but clarifies that cases are only considered a result of community transmission if 1) the virus is found in two or more students who have been in the same class or area within the past 14 days, and 2) the cases “are not explainable by another epidemiological origin.” Some students claim that McGill’s contact tracing is not thorough enough, and have created Google Forms in order to track cases themselves. Likewise, McGill’s contact-tracing guidelines were subject to criticism from students last Fall, when students claimed that their positive test results were not being included in McGill’s overall case count. UdeM and UofA also claim to include every positive test result which is reported to them in their figures, but do not distinguish between individual cases of COVID-19 and instances of community transmission. While UofT makes note of “outbreaks on campus” – that is, community transmissions – in their case tracker, they do not specify what counts as an outbreak.

Some universities, such as Concordia University, X University (formerly known as Ryerson University), and the University of British Columbia (UBC), do not make case counts publicly available whatsoever. At these institutions, students are made aware of COVID cases if they were in close contact with the infected individual within the 14 days leading up to their test; universities have cited concerns about sharing personal health information to justify withholding case numbers. At UBC, a student-run website tracks cases by compiling the notices which students receive after a possible exposure to the virus – however, UBC administrators claim that they cannot verify the data on this site in the interest of protecting “patient confidentiality.”

Abigail Popple

On-Campus Guidelines

McGill, Concordia, and UdeM all require students to wear masks when indoors, but social distancing is not enforced in classrooms. Because the Quebec government currently does not include postsecondary educational institutions among its designated testing centres, these universities are not distributing COVID tests. In contrast, UofA, UBC, UofT, and X University all provide rapid testing, and mandate unvaccinated individuals to be tested frequently. While each of these schools require masks to be worn indoors, UofA is the only one which requires students to remain two metres apart while indoors due to stricter public health guidelines implemented after the Alberta government declared a state of emergency. UofA also recently implemented a vaccine mandate, joining UofT and X University in requiring proof of vaccination to enter school buildings.

Further, some universities require students as well as employees to complete a COVID self-assessment form before arriving on campus. Concordia, UofT, X University, UofA, UdeM, and the Okanagen campus at UBC all require students to submit health screenings daily; while McGill requires a similar screening for employees, students do not have to use the COVID-19 self assessment tool. Additionally, students at Concordia, UofA, and UofT were required to complete a video module about COVID safety prior to the beginning of the Fall semester.

Abigail Popple

Accommodations for Students

McGill has made it clear that students and faculty are expected to be present on campus regardless of any safety concerns they have – in a recent press conference with the Daily, Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau stated that safety concerns were not a valid reason to not attend in-person school. UdeM, UBC, and UofA also expect students to be on campus. Concordia is using a hybrid model, though international students claim they are experiencing difficulty due to missing the in-person elements of their classes. However, Concordia has decided to make online classes a permanent fixture and will continue to offer them. UofT and X University have not transitioned to being fully in-person, but anticipate holding more classes in person during the Winter 2022 semester. 

McGill students who are presenting with COVID-19 symptoms or who have received positive test results must complete the COVID-19 self-assessment form and self-isolate. As some lectures are not recorded, and approximately 85 per cent of classes at McGill are being conducted in person, it is unclear how the University expects students to comply with isolation protocol and participate in school. McGill has also stated that students who have been in contact with a “low-risk” COVID-19 case will not be notified of potential exposure, pursuant to Public Health protocol. Those who have been in medium-risk and high risk contact with an infected individual are notified. Montreal Public Health defines medium-risk contact as an extended period (15 minutes or more) of close contact (less than two metres apart) wherein one or both individuals were not properly wearing their mask. High-risk contact occurs when individuals are in unmasked, “sustained physical contact”  – for example, roommates or sexually-active partners are in high-risk contact when one party is infected.