Archive for the Covid-19 Category

Opening Up Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on June 15, 2021 by telescoper

The Irish Government has just produced its plan for A Safe Return to on-site further and higher education and research that outlines what is basically a full return to on-campus activity from September 2021.
I quote from the preamble to the document linked to above:

It is expected that the majority of the people over 18 in Ireland will have been vaccinated by September 2021, and so planning is proceeding on the basis that full resumption of on-site activity is possible, while ensuring that overall numbers attending on-site are monitored and controlled.

In the absence of regular updates about the progress of Ireland’s vaccination programme it is difficult to know whether the first sentence is accurate or not, especially since it appears that two vaccine doses are needed to protect against the Delta-variant. I think most teaching staff will have been immunized by September, but am not so sure about the student population.

I’m also mindful that we were optimistic in advance of the start of last academic year and things didn’t exactly go to plan then. Nevertheless there do seem to be reasonable grounds for believing that we can return to on-campus teaching in September and we will be planning on that basis until there is evidence to the contrary. I just hope we don’t have to do a rapid about-turn like we did last year.

The first step in this process for us here in Maynooth is that from 5th July staff and research students can return to their offices on campus – following the existing protocols on social distancing, sanitation and ventilation – without having to make a special case. Only a few people have been working inside the Department since the start of the year and I’d expect most to begin making their way back.

In fact some members of the Department of Theoretical Physics joined us only this academic year and have never actually been the building (or on campus) at all. I suppose I’ll now have to find office space for them, something that hasn’t been necessary while we have all been working from home!

As a matter of fact, since it’s a nice day and I’ve been on Teams all morning, I might take a walk onto campus myself this afternoon and visit my office in the Department for the first time in a month…

The Euclid Consortium Conference Photo!

Posted in Covid-19, The Universe and Stuff on June 11, 2021 by telescoper

The Coronavirus pandemic has not only changed the nature of conferences but also changed the nature of conference photographs. Here’s the group picture of the Euclid Consortium Conference that took place via Zoom at the end of May. I’m actually in it, though I wasn’t paying attention at the time and am therefore not looking at the camera. Moreover, there are some other people who are in it several times!

Full of Pfizz

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on June 8, 2021 by telescoper

Well, this morning I took my second trip to City West Convention Centre for my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It all went off smoothly, except the queues were very much longer than last time so it took me about 90 minutes from start to finish. Most of the extra time was spent queuing outside which wasn’t too bad because it wasn’t raining. Chatting to one of the volunteers on the way I learned that they are doing about 4,500 a day at this centre, which is getting on for 500 an hour.

When I left after my jab I noticed the outdoor queue was much longer than it had been when I joined this morning, so those just starting to wait were probably in for at least two hours before they got jabbed. Still, after everything that we’ve been missing out on for the past year and a bit, what’s a couple of hours?

Other than the increased numbers the experience was similar to my first dose: well-run, efficient and friendly. Thanks again to all concerned!

So that’s me fully vaccinated although disappointingly I don’t seem to be able to receive 5G signals and haven’t received my instructions from Bill Gates yet.

Anyway, now I’m back home about an hour later and have so far no ill-effects. We have an examination board meeting this afternoon so let’s hope I don’t flake out during it.

UPDATE: 8 hours on and I’m definitely feeling a bit tired…zzzz

UPDATE: 24 hours on, I was more-than-usually tired last night and that continues but I experienced no fevers or anything like that. Slight discomfort in the arm where the injection was given.

Birthday Treats

Posted in Art, Biographical, Covid-19 on June 5, 2021 by telescoper

As planned I took some time out yesterday, hopped on a train for the first time in 15 months and went into Dublin. I was shocked by some of the scenes I saw when I reached my destination: large crowds with no masks and no social distancing and all kinds of rowdy behaviour. Here’s an example:

I was at the National Gallery of course. I wandered around for a couple of hours and then returned to Maynooth. The gallery is still free for visitors but these days you have to register online beforehand so they can control numbers. I have been there before but didn’t realize until yesterday that there’s an entrance on Clare Street, which is even closer to Pearse Station than the main entrance of Merrion Square, so I’ll be using that from now on. There’s a lot to see in the National Gallery and I hope to spend more time there in future.

After getting home I had Zoom drinks with some old friends from Cardiff, which was very pleasant indeed, and then cooked myself a self-indulgent dinner which I ate with a nice Barolo.

Earlier in the day, I was able to publish another paper in the Open Journal of Astrophysics (of which more anon).

Then, as a lovely present, I received a text telling me of the appointment for my second Pfizer/BioNTech Jab: Tuesday 8th June, exactly 4 weeks after the first. People (and the leaflets I was given on the occasion of Jab Number 1) say that the second dose is more likely to produce side effects than the first but I’m glad that in a few days I’ll be fully vaccinated and can start thinking about the possibility of travelling at some point this summer, regulations permitting.

Anyway, the relaxation isn’t over yet. This is a Bank Holiday Weekend in Ireland so I’ll be doing as little as possible until I return to work on Tuesday for Examination Matters, etc.

P.S. My birthday fundraiser has almost reached its target but is still going so if you feel like contributing you can still do so here.

P.P.S. There were some rowdy scenes in Dublin yesterday evening but not where I was (and I was home before they started).

Leaving Late Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 3, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday we were told that, as was the case last year, this year’s Leaving Certificate results will be delayed until September (3rd, to be precise). The first round of CAO offers will be made a few days later, on September 7th. All this is about three weeks later than the usual (pre-Covid) cycle of examinations and results. Last year the announcement of a delay was made in mid-July, but now it’s been done in early June.

I’m actually a bit baffled as to why it is going to take so long this year, given that it’s not a new situation with respect to Covid-19 and there will be fewer examinations to mark than in previous years. Universities are able to turn around marks for thousands of students in just a couple of weeks so why the heck will it take so long to get the Leaving Certificate results out? There will be fewer exams to mark than in pre-Covid era too, as some subject marks will be based on coursework.

Here at Maynooth University the start of the academic year 2021/22 is due to take place on Monday 20th September, with Welcome Week starting on 13th September.   Getting everything ready in time for teaching will be a huge challenge because we will only find out very late in the day how many students we have to accommodate in first-year lectures. It is unlikely that timetable will be possible so we face the prospect of having to scrap the orientation events that usually take place in Welcome Week, delaying the start of term, shortening the teaching semester (again) or scrapping the mid-term Study Break.

We’re not able to make many plans in advance because we don’t have much idea in what form teaching will resume because that depends on public health guidelines. Last year, most lecture rooms had their capacity reduced by more than half. Lecturers need to know how many students they have in order to decide how to use the available lecture slots and how to strike a balance between live and online delivery. It’s an even worse situation for laboratory subjects.

The Minister responsible is saying he expects campuses to be more-or-less fully open in September but I’m not convinced that we’re out of the woods yet. Let’s hope that I’m wrong.

If any prospective student is getting worried reading this, I can promise you that we will be doing the best we can to provide the best education we can in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this September. So please bear with us. We didn’t want any of this any more than you did, but we just have to make the best of it!

UPDATE: We have now been informed that returning students will start as planned on 20th September, while lectures for new students will start a week later, on 27th September, with the previous week being used for some orientation events.

Buttercups and Columbines

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 2, 2021 by telescoper

I suppose Ranunculus and Aquilegia are technically both weeds but they are adding a bit of colour to my garden at the moment and seem to be thriving in their spot next to the wall so I’ll leave them undisturbed.

I suppose it was inevitable that, the day I finished correcting my examination scripts, the glorious weather would end and it would start raining. Still, the rain is good for the garden. There’s always a burst of new growth after each shower. I wonder what will come up next?

The weather improve for the coming weekend which will be nice. It’s a Bank Holiday next Monday and a significant date for me personally on Friday so I’m hoping to take a break during which some gardening will be on the agenda (weather permitting).

I was also thinking about going into Dublin at some point for the first time in over a year, just for a walk around and maybe to visit the National Gallery again. The stories in the press of big crowds of people drinking outdoors last weekend have put me off a bit, but I dare say I can avoid the likely problem areas. Having been stuck in one place for 15 months (apart from a trip to get vaccinated) I feel I should make the effort to begin some sort of renormalisation.

With the exams over, students are asking what is going to happen with teaching in September. The answer is still that I have no idea, though if there’s a spike in infections due to recent events it will be even less likely that we will be back to normal for the new academic year.

Between Shots

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on May 29, 2021 by telescoper

The weather being rather pleasant today I had the chance to do a spot of gardening and hence chat to a couple of my neighbours outside at front of house about this that and the other. It turns out all three of us are between vaccine jabs, two having had a dose of Pfizer/BioNTech and the other one dose of AstraZeneca. None of us had any side effects after the first dose but are all now wondering when we’ll get our second. I expect I’ll get mine by mid-June sometime.

Official statistics on Ireland’s vaccination are no longer being published owing to the continuing disruption caused by a randsomware attack on the HSE computer systems, but the programme itself has not been affected by this and it is now believed that over 50% of the adult population has had its first jab.

However, this week we learned that Johnson & Johnson has joined AstraZeneca in not being able fulfil its contractual obligations and there might be a shortfall of several hundred thousand doses in June. It always seemed to me unlikely that Ireland would reach the Government’s target of 80% of the adult population vaccinated by the end of June, and now that looks virtually impossible.

Progress in vaccination will be a big factor in how we start teaching again next academic year, especially as it concerns the student population. We won’t know for a while how this will pan out so I’m trying not to think about it.

Of course there’s also the question of how many don’t take up the offer of a vaccine. I haven’t seen statistics on that but I hope it’s a small fraction. If people refuse their jabs, many may die needlelessly.

P.S. Can anyone suggest a plausible scientific explanation of why the lockdown has caused all my summer clothes to shrink?



Marking Blues

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 21, 2021 by telescoper

“May is a pious fraud of the almanac.” – James R. Lowell

The rainy weather we’ve been having for the last few days has at least deprived me of distractions from the job at hand: the marking of examinations and other assessments. Examinations started here in Maynooth last Friday (14th May) , a week ago today, and as I write this morning another one has just started. That’s the third in the past week. Yesterday I managed to finish all the assessments for one Module, just in time for today’s batch to arrive. It’s not only examination marking of course, I’ve also had computational physics projects to assess and feedback to write. Suffice to say that it’s a busy time of year.

When I was getting this morning’s examination online timed assessment ready it suddenly struck me that some of the students taking it belong the year group that entered the University in September 2018, and are the first students I will have seen all the way through the degree as they are taking their last set of exams now and will graduate this summer.

Of course when I say “will have seen” I’m not really being honest. I’ve hardly seen any of them since last March. Although I have spoken to them via Teams I haven’t even seen them virtually, as students virtually always have their video on mute during online teaching sessions.

Because of the Covid-19 restrictions, the students on three-year programmes have had most of their teaching online since last Spring, and by the time they finish the current set of examinations half their assessment will have been online.

You’ll have to ask students whether the lack of face-to face interactions has impacted their learning, but speaking for myself as a lecturer it has made life very difficult. Lecturing to a camera is not easy, and the absence of visual cues from the audience makes it difficult to know whether what you’re saying is sinking in. I guess we’ll find out when we look at the examination grades.

Thinking about the group of students who will form the graduating class for this year, though, the saddest thing is that they will shortly finish their exams and complete their degrees. We the staff won’t have the chance to congratulate them properly, nor will they the students be able to celebrate properly with each other (as they are scattered all over the country).

Although we’ve worked very hard to do what we can over the past year and a bit, I can’t rid my mind of the feeling that this group in particular has been let down very badly. I know the circumstances are beyond our control and all that, but they just haven’t had the educational experience they expected and deserve. At least – we hope – other groups can look forward to something like normality, possibly from next year, but for this group that’s it for their third level education. It’s really not fair.

I have said so before on this blog that I think any student who wishes to should be able to repeat the last year at university free of charge in recognition that they have been severely short-changed. It seems to me that would be the right thing to do, which is why I don’t think the Government will allow it.

Now, it’s still raining so I’ll try to get some more marking done while the exam goes on.

Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , , on May 16, 2021 by telescoper

After posting updates about Ireland’s Covid-19 situation every single day since the end of March 2020 – a total of 441 entries so far – I’ve been forced to pause. The reason is that a “significant ransomware attack” has crippled many of the computer systems of the Health Service Executive and while it is being dealt with, no data on Covid-19 (including vaccinations) are being published. As far as I understand it, testing and vaccination are going on as before, but we will have to wait until systems are restored before announcements will resume and backdated data is published.

When the dust settles on this I’m pretty sure the inevitable investigation will reveal that the HSE has been using outdated IT hardware and software that made it much easier for the cybercriminals than it should have been.  The disruption is of course extremely annoying but there is a real possibility that the cancellation of urgent medical procedures may lead to loss of life. I sincerely hope the perpetrators are caught and subjected to the full force of the law.

Meanwhile, out of interest, here is my latest summary plot (dated 14th May) which shows new cases steady at the (uncomfortably) high level of around 430 per day (7-day average) but deaths falling:

It is reasonable to infer that the combination of falling mortality figures and constant infection rates is attributable to the vaccination most people in the groups most at risk.

Last Monday (10th May) saw various relaxations of the current restrictions around Covid-19 and tomorrow there will be further loosening. In particular all remaining “non-essential” shops will open. This won’t make much difference to me personally as I shall be locked down marking examinations for at least the next fortnight.

I don’t think the cyber attack will affect the timing of my second vaccine dose, which is due in early June, but that remains to be seen.

The Affair of the Missing Trophy

Posted in Covid-19, Crosswords with tags , , on May 13, 2021 by telescoper

A few weeks ago I posted about my first ever First Prize in the Azed Crossword Competition. At the end of that post I mentioned that I was eagerly anticipating being sent a silver trophy called the Azed Instant Victor Verborum Cup to hold for a month before passing it on to the winner of the next competition.

Unfortunately it seems that, owing to a combination of the Royal Mail and Covid-19, the Azed trophy has gone missing somewhere on its travels. In fact it hasn’t even reached the winner before me (a Dr S.J. Shaw) yet. The chances of it being located, retrieved and then sent to me before it would be time to send it on to the next winner are now remote so I don’t suppose I’ll ever get my hands on it. Ho hum.

Still, I did get a nice card from Dr Shaw explaining the situation and sending his congratulations:

I hope the trophy is found because it would be a shame if the tradition of passing it on came to an end, but it’s not such a big deal that I’ll miss out on having it on my mantelpiece for a few weeks. At least it absolves me of the responsibility of ensuring it reaches the next winner…