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Why is Queen’s Requiring Students to Attend Super-Spreader Events this Holiday Season?: Letter

This is an opinion letter submitted to YGK News. The views represented in this letter do not necessarily represent those of the publication.

Editors Note: Queen’s has released the following note with respect to PCR Testing:

“Individuals who are ill or have symptoms of COVID-19 are not permitted on-campus and are instructed to stay home. If a student has to miss a class, exam, or other academic requirement due to symptoms, COVID-19 illness, or a self-isolation requirement, timely academic consideration will be granted. This has been Queen’s practice throughout the fall term, as outlined in the Fall 2021 In-Class Protocols. A positive PCR test result is not required to receive academic consideration. Students are to follow their faculty/school’s academic consideration protocols.

By: Abigail McLean

Seemingly deaf to the calls from public health officials for increased caution as case counts explode across the province, Queen’s University has made the outrageous decision to proceed with in-person exams this holiday season, forcing students to sit in crowded gymnasiums. 

This decision to require hundreds of students to write exams in the same room stands in stark contrast to the recently announced KFLA public health restriction of a 10-person limit on gatherings, and to the decisions of universities across the country, and must be overturned before the university endangers the health of its students and the entire Kingston community.

This decision is not only dangerous, but it also contradicts other decisions that Queen’s has taken this week.  With multiple Omicron cases in the student community, Queen’s has moved any remaining classes to an online format, seeingly acknowledging the risk of in-person gatherings for students, while letting exams proceed as scheduled, despite the calls from KFLA public health. 

This lack of consistency is not only unacceptable, it places students, their families, and whole communities in harm’s way. Queen’s claims that in-person exams will be safe, pointing to measures like physical distancing while waiting in line to enter the exam venue, however from the first-hand accounts being shared with me from many students, this is anything but true, as seen in the photo at the beginning of this letter.

As concerning as the decision to force students to write exams in person is, what is just as shocking is the sudden about-face the school has done with respect to COVID precautions for students.  When Queen’s introduced new COVID academic considerations on November 29th, they told students to take the following steps: “Do NOT attend classes, labs, final exams if you are feeling unwell. If you miss a class, exam, or other academic requirement due to COVID-19 illness, symptoms, or self-isolation requirement, academic consideration will be granted. No documentation (i.e., medical notes) is required.” 

Without explanation or notice, Queen’s has recently changed this requirement (without telling students) and students are now only exempt if they receive a positive PCR test, which is almost impossible given that students are not able to access testing facilities. 

PCR testing has been nearly impossible to get in the past few weeks in Kingston, with wait times for tests at over a week, with some students traveling as far as Ottawa to get tests so they can take their exams. 

Queen’s announced the opening of an on-campus testing centre on December 10th, but according to students who have contacted me, there are no appointments today, they are not open on weekends, and they are not yet taking appointments for next week.

What’s worse is that even when students have been tested, and their close contacts identified as at risk of having been infected, they are still being required to attend exams in person. I have had countless students reach out to me to tell me that, despite having been identified by KFLA as a high-risk contact and told to self-isolate, Queen’s is still requiring them to write exams. 

This forces students to have to choose between potentially failing their classes, or protecting the health of other students. Students now have to either wait a week to get tested, miss exams and flights home, just to sit in a gym with 400 other students, many of whom are likely close-contacts who should be isolating, or who may be carrying COVID themselves. When tuition is over twenty thousand dollars for some students, it is not hard to understand why some choose to forgo testing so they don’t fail their courses. 

Queen’s faculty and administration have replied to the emails of concerned students by letting them know that it is too costly to move exams online at this point. One student was told by a professor that “[moving exams online] would be expensive and time-consuming, making it difficult if not unnecessary to change the exam to an online format.”

It should be alarming to all students and their families to hear that financial considerations are more important to Queen’s than the health of their students and their communities.

It would serve Queen’s well to consider the long-term and widespread costs of letting exams proceed in person, which far outweighs the costs of moving exams online. There are far higher long-term costs to the school in terms of reputation and financial support from students, donors, and families that may withdraw financial support from Queen’s, than the cost of changing exam formats. 

For a school that is already worried about enrollment, it is a foolish decision to force students to write exams in person since future students will not want to attend a school that has demonstrated a willful disregard for the health and safety of students. 

Queen’s has been aware of the student concerns about their ‘safe’ return to campus since September. I, along with other Student Council Presidents, have been telling the Deans and Assistant-Deans since the start of the semester why their policies aren’t working, how students don’t feel safe, and how they needed a testing centre on campus. They have continuously dismissed me (and other students) in these meetings or deferred their response to someone who wasn’t even in the meeting. 

The Queen’s administration has been silencing student voices all year, and it has never been more apparent the extent to which they will ignore students to do things the way they want.

Queen’s hasn’t had testing on campus all semester, has hardly enforced COVID policies, and has been anything but accommodating all semester. Now they refuse to move exams online? It has never been more clear to me how little Queen’s cares about their students.

Queen’s has a duty to prevent the further spread and impact of COVID in Kingston. Queen’s is not only jeopardizing the student community, but the entire KFLA community as well as the thousands of families of students, risking overwhelming the healthcare system. 

Instead of helping to protect students, Queen’s is making a bad situation worse.  Queen’s has run out of places for students to isolate, and now has COVID-positive students isolated on residence floors with students who are not infected. These students now have to isolate for ten days because of the cases on their floor, meaning students are missing flights home which requires 14-day isolation periods before boarding, meaning these students can’t attend exams nor can they return home for the holidays. 

Queen’s blatant disregard for student health and safety in this situation also means that many graduating students have had to defer exams until August 2022, or that they cannot meet the deadlines to apply for graduate programs. 

When students return home over the next few weeks, many of them may spread COVID across the country. as they do. Many students have shared with me how they do not feel safe returning home for the holidays and putting their immunocompromised family members at a potentially fatal risk of contracting COVID. 

Queen’s must allow students to choose whether they write exams in person or online, with or without COVID documentation (for some students, like those with certain disabilities, writing in person is a better option and in small numbers could be done safely). 

I call on Queen’s to work with Student Wellness Services to work to accommodate and make exemptions for those who may need in-person exams but to move the majority of exams online in the interest of public health. 

This letter is a call for Queen’s to have some accountability and listen to their students. I have had countless students reach out to me to let me know that their emails to faculty and administration have either been ignored or they have received unsatisfactory replies that do not address the concerns that are widely shared among the student body.

 The petition I started last night has received over 2800 signatures in less than 24 hours. It is clear that the vast majority of the student community does not feel safe writing in-person exams at this time, and the implications of keeping exams in person are far for widespread than just the student community. It should raise some questions when students are taking COVID more seriously than the university administration.

I implore Queen’s to protect the safety and wellbeing of the student community, as well as the thousands of others in the KFLA region and across Canada, and move exams online (with exceptions for those who need to write in person).

Abigail McLean is a student at Queen’s University.

Student waiting outside an exam venue on December 9th

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