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In-person exams at Queen’s are ‘dangerous,’ according to student groups

Update (Monday, Dec. 13, 2021)

Queen’s University has announced the decision to move all exams into an online format as opposed to in-person. Read more about that here.

Original article

A petition asking Queen’s University to move Fall Term exams online, rather than writing in-person, has gained nearly 4,000 signatures since it was posted online at around 7 p.m. yesterday, Thursday, Dec.10, 2021.

Students are concerned that the increased case counts of COVID-19 in Kingston could jeopardize their safety and the safety of their loved ones if they are forced to write exams together in large exam halls.

In a letter, Abigail McLean, who posted the petition, writes, “This decision to require hundreds of students to write exams in the same room stands in stark contrast to the recently announced KFL&A 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.”

Main Gym at Queen’s ARC where University Varsity Sports have been put on hold due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Photo via Queen’s Gaels website.

McLean is a Global Development Studies Student Council co-president but says in this case, “I am acting outside of my role with the DSC, and my statements do not reflect those of the DEVS student council or department.”

Her letter calls the decision to continue with in-person exams “dangerous,” pointing out that Queen’s has “moved any remaining classes to an online format… acknowledging the risk of in-person gatherings for students, while letting exams proceed as scheduled, despite the calls from KFL&A public health.”

A photo shows students waiting in line for an exam. Submitted by Abigail McLean.

A representative for another group of concerned students spoke with Kingstonist on condition of anonymity, “The dilemma that we students are forced to face is that we must attend in-person exams in order to do our final assessment. Keep in mind, Kingston is currently a red zone with over 500 [active] cases, 35 cases amongst students, and the omicron variant has been detected,” they said, referring to the Kingston Frontenac Lennox and Addington Public Health COVID dashboard numbers, and the University’s current outbreaks at one residence and in their varsity sports program, and the presence of the Omicron variant in the KFL&A region.

Yesterday, the University updated the “Our safe return to campus” page on its website,saying, “The emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in the Kingston region, including a number of suspected cases within the Queen’s community, requires the University to adjust our campus operations. The new variant is highly contagious. To help keep people safe as we head towards the winter break, the University is proactively implementing a series of enhanced health and safety measures on campus.

These health and safety measures were to be made immediately. 

The University indicated that “Although most fall term classes are completed, where possible, all faculties and schools will be moving any remaining Fall 2021 in-person classes to a remote learning option as soon as possible.”

However, it stated that, “In-person exams will remain as currently scheduled with enhanced precautions in place to ensure that students can progress in their studies and meet the academic requirements of their program.”

The precautions for in-person exams include mandatory completion of the SeQure app screening tool, physical distancing while waiting in line to enter the exam venue, and wearing a mask at all times. 

Queen’s also indicated that, “Students are reminded not to come to campus for an in-person exam if they feel at all unwell. Known contacts of positive cases should follow public health guidance. Timely academic consideration will be granted in these instances.” A link was provided to the University’s “Enhanced in-person exam protocols.”

A post from social media showing students lined up closely together while awaiting an exam on Wednesday, Dec.8, 2021, despite Queen’s University stating that physical distancing would be employed when lining up for in-person exams. Submitted photo.

The student representative and those who have signed the petition don’t feel that is enough.

“At the end of the day, despite the strict protocols, exam halls are still packed with over hundreds of students on average. How do you ensure the safety of hundreds of students who are already stressed about acclimating to a physical examination setting after two years? Not only is the threat of COVID physically upsetting, but in the current exam hall setting, it is mentally stressful, too,” the student, who will remain anonymous, posed in an email.

The student also stated that many students are planning to return to their homes for the holidays and that they fear bringing COVID-19 back to their families.

This would be particularly harmful to those travelling to other countries, the student expressed.

“For international students like me, if I contracted COVID that would mean I would not be able to see my family after two years of absence. So, why should I be forced to choose between passing my course and jeopardizing the risk of seeing my family? This makes no sense to me.”

The student also brought up the problem of current delayed COVID testing wait times, and noted, “Queen’s has allowed us to not attend an exam if we are feeling sick on the condition we show some proof of COVID testing. However, with the current state of Kingston, students are not able to provide proof of a test appointment given that bookings are already full and at the time of this message, the earliest test you can do in Kingston is [in] a week.”

While there were two test appointments available for booking online at 2:15 p.m., many are refreshing the online appointment booking page several times daily to find cancelled appointments, and only one was available in Kingston less than five minutes later.

Students worry that the lack of available testing could potentially force students to take their exams even if they are feeling sick, or to miss out on their exams since they can’t provide proof as to why they missed the exam that day. “The whole situation is reflecting poorly on Queen’s, as we expected them to put the priority of their students’ physical and mental well-being first, but every procedure and protocol in place has only worked against the students’ interest,” the unnamed student said.

Comments on the petition and on a Reddit post asking students to sign it echo these concerns.

A Reddit post about COVID-19 on the Queen’s University campus has been updated to encourage students to sign the petition. Commenters are confused and upset by the University’s actions. Screen Capture.

McLean accuses the University of a “lack of consistency,” and said that writing in-person exams, “is not only unacceptable, but it also 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.”

Asked, for comment, Queen’s University’s communications team referenced their online “Our safe return to campus” page. No further comment had been received from Queen’s at the time this article was published.

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