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UVic COVID cluster grows to 124, including 4 Omicron cases; in-person exams cancelled

Affected student population is highly vaccinated, resulting in mild illness in the cases so far
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University of Victoria students, from left, Eric Calvert, Sharidyn Schiller, Thomas Swindale and Baz Cox react to the news that exams will move online due to a COVID-19 outbreak among students. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Students and instructors are scrambling to adjust after the University of Victoria announced the cancellation of in-person exams Sunday, due to a growing cluster of COVID-19 cases.

As of Monday, 124 cases of COVID-19 had been associated with the cluster following off-campus gatherings, Island Health and UVic said in a joint statement. Four of the cases have been identified as Omicron, an emerging variant of concern believed to be more transmissible. Lab sequencing is continuing and more confirmed cases of Omicron are expected.

The number of positive cases associated with the cluster has jumped from 30 confirmed by Island Health on Friday. In response to the growing numbers, UVic announced Sunday it would not be holding in-person exams, effective Monday.

Instructors who were planning to hold exams are having to find a last-minute alternative method to evaluate students, said Lynne Marks, president of the UVic Faculty Association. Some are moving to take-home tests or exams written online, options that work better for some courses than others, she said.

The change is creating more work for instructors, but the faculty association recognizes cancelling in-person exams is necessary for the health of students and faculty, Marks said.

Students and faculty are now wondering what it will all mean for the next semester.

The announcement reminded Sharidyn Schiller, a first-year health informatics student, of March 2020, when pandemic-related uncertainty sent schools across the country to a virtual model for months.

“Them posting that felt like the exact same as when school got cancelled for the first time. Everyone was like, no, that’s not real,” said Schiller, who plans to head home to Alberta earlier and write her exams later this week from there.

Schiller said she’s hoping the next semester doesn’t move to an online model, but if it does, she doesn’t want to live in residence while learning through her computer screen.

First-year computer-science student Baz Cox was studying in the library Sunday when he learned through a friend that his Monday-afternoon exam would no longer be held in person. His professor sent out four or five emails Sunday evening to the class, explaining how the 2 p.m. exam would proceed online.

While students were told the evaluation would not be open-book, Cox said he’s skeptical professors will be able to enforce that. Having written two exams in person, he said he feels he’s at a disadvantage because students taking the same courses will now get to write those exams from home, potentially with access to their notes and textbooks.

Camosun College, Vancouver Island University and Royal Roads University are continuing with their exam schedules as planned. Camosun spokesman Rodney Porter said the college consulted with Island Health and was not advised to cancel in-person exams. Camosun doesn’t have the case numbers that UVic is reporting and has about half the size of UVic’s student population, with much smaller exam groups.

Island Health and UVic say the affected student population is highly vaccinated, resulting in mild illness in the cases so far. The health authority is not aware of any hospitalizations associated with the cluster.

Transmission is taking place in social settings and households, and there’s no evidence of transmission in classrooms or workplaces, Island Health and UVic said in their joint statement, crediting COVID-19 control measures for preventing spread on campus.

Island Health said cancelling in-person exams and limiting other social events are sufficient to limit spread during the exam period and it supports a return to in-person learning in January. The health authority said the cluster is a reminder to be cautious during the holiday season, because indoor social settings with few or no safety controls can lead to transmission among vaccinated people.

The health authority said it will make rapid-testing kits available in the coming days through the university to people deemed close contacts of confirmed cases.

Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, have also cancelled or postponed in-person exams.

The changes come after Queen’s confirmed a virus outbreak in the student community, and after the local health unit announced a case of the Omicron variant not linked to travel.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com