Archive for the Covid-19 Category

No Booster in Sight…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on December 2, 2021 by telescoper

Data from the last few days provide just a hint that the recent increase in Covid-19 infection in Ireland may be slowing down:

Even if this is the case, though, the level of Coronavirus in circulation is very high, much higher than it was this time last year ahead of the Christmas surge and this year there’s the apparently much more transmissible omicron variant to throw into the mix.

I saw a letter in the Irish Times earlier this week pointing out that Universities in Ireland have worked very hard to stay open throughout the recent wave. Third level institutions have been told by Government so stay open despite a wider exhortation to “work from home wherever possible”. Well, most of us have been working from home doing online lectures for most of the past 18 months so we know that is “possible” – and indeed large classes containing over 250 students are still being taught that way – yet we’re now being told that it is essential that we continue teaching smaller classes in person.

I have enjoyed teaching on campus again, despite the hassle of having to improvise a method of recording the blackboard on video. I also believe that the situation is fairly safe, what with well ventilated classrooms, all students wearing face coverings, and everyone vaccinated…

But there’s the rub.

Next Wednesday will be six months since my second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine so I am concerned that my protection is on the wane. Next week I will be due a booster. Unfortunately the Irish Government is making a complete hash of the booster campaign which, as a result, is running way behind many countries, including the UK. Two elderly neighbours of mine in Maynooth had to queue for three hours in the freezing cold at Citiwest for their boosters, only to be told to come back another day as they weren’t ready. I know others in the 60-69 age group who haven’t even got an appointment yet. I am a bright young thing of 58 so I am quite a way back in queue. Although I’m due my booster by next Wednesday I won’t be surprised if I have to wait until after Christmas.

Update: the rollout of boosters to those in the 50-59 age group is supposed to begin in ‘mid-December’.

I’ve said so before on this blog that unless I get my booster before 8th December, I will be switching all my teaching online and working from home and I’ll continue doing that until I am fully protected, however long that takes. It’s not so much that I am afraid of being infected on campus, just that the situation is quite unreasonable and I’m taking a stand on point of principle. As the correspondent in the Irish Times points out, University staff have been taken completely for granted during the pandemic.

P.S. If the Government regards a lecturer’s work as “essential” then they should treat us as frontline staff and prioritize our booster shots. They were keen to set up campus vaccination centres for students so why not do the same for staff?

The Omicron Variant

Posted in Covid-19, Crosswords, mathematics on November 30, 2021 by telescoper

As a theoretical physicist I use Greek characters ll the time in mathematical work but, being very slow on the uptake, I only just realized a few days ago that the name of the Greek letter ‘omicron’ (ο) is derived from the Greek meaning ‘little-o’  while the name ‘omega’ means ‘big o’.

More recently still a Greek friend of mine pointed out that the lower-case symbol for omega (ω)  was originally formed as ‘oo’, i.e. double-o.

In modern Greek ο and ω are pronounced the same but in ancient Greek the vocalisation of ω was longer than that of ο, suggesting that οmicron is more like short ‘o’ than little ‘o’ while omega is long `o’ rather than big ‘o’.

Incidentally, I was brought up to pronounce π like “pie” but in most of Europe (including Greece) it is pronounced “pee”. It is in fact the Greek letter ‘p’. I feel I’ve been delta very weak hand when it comes to Greek pronunciation and I’ll beta majority of theoretical physicists feel the same. I think we need to take a nu approach in schools, and rho back from the old ways. Anyway I’m going home now to eta bit of curry for supper…

 

 

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?

Half Measures

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on November 16, 2021 by telescoper

Against the backdrop of rapidly rising numbers of Covid-19 cases the Irish Government today announced the return of some restrictions, including the closure of hospitality venues no later than midnight and a return to working from home “unless absolutely necessary”. On the latter, however, it has said that “There will be no reintroduction of remote learning for schools and third-level institutions at this point”.

I think the key phrase is “at this point”. I don’t think the new measures go nearly far enough and they will have to be revisited in a week or two, at which point we will revert to remote (online) teaching. Although we haven’t been give guidance yet, I think we’ll be carrying on with in-person lectures and tutorials at Maynooth for the time being, but it’s no more than an even money bet that we’ll stay that way until the end of term. I would also suggest that the odds are very much against us actually having examinations on campus in January. We await further guidance from the University about this, so I don’t know. The timetable for the January examinations is due to be published next week so a decision will have to be made very quickly.

What I do know, though, is that my second vaccine dose was on June 8th. The Government has now announced that 50-59 year olds (which includes me) can now get a third (booster) dose six months from their last one. In my case that is December 8th. But the roll-out of boosters has been painfully slow in Ireland, and most of the over-60s haven’t had theirs yet. It’s likely to be weeks or months until I get an appointment for mine.

We might have to switch to remote teaching in a while anyway if the rules are changed but I have made the decision that if I haven’t got my booster by December 8th I’ll be working from home and switching all my lectures online. Term ends on December 17th so I’ll only have to give a few remote lectures, but for me it is a matter of principle.

By deciding that in person teaching is “absolutely essential” the Government has admitted that lecturers are frontline staff and we should accordingly get a booster dose at the appropriate time. I’ve worked countless hours of unpaid overtime during this pandemic and I’m not going to continue without adequate protection from infection.

Worrying Times…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 14, 2021 by telescoper

So here I am, trying to plan my teaching for next week and wondering what’s going to happen between now and the end of term. Here at Maynooth University lectures finish on 17th December, five weeks from now. I’m just about on schedule to cover everything I’m supposed to, so I’m not worried about that.

What I am worried about is that Covid-19 cases are continuing to climb. The latest 7-day rolling average of new cases is over 3900 per day and the increasing trend show no sign of slowing down. It will reach the 5000 mark in a week or two. Some daily figures have already passed that milestone. The death rate is still relatively low – 74 Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in the last week – but is edging up; over a hundred people with Covid-19 are being treated in ICU as of today.

The Irish Government seems to have no intention of introducing effective countermeasures and is instead just advising people to cut down the amount of socializing they do. I don’t think that will work. It seems very clear to me that the Government lost the room many weeks ago by frequently implying that the Covid-19 pandemic was over. They then caved in to the hospitality industry by allowing nightclubs to open. It is no doubt in such places that the virus is spreading. The Government keep stating that they are concerned but do nothing, blinking at the onrushing disaster like rabbits caught in the headlights of an approaching car.

Case numbers on campus at Maynooth remain fairly low, though the latest figure (69) is almost double last week’s figure (35). Students in my classes continue to wear face coverings and observe the other protocols and all the signs are that lecture halls and labs are pretty safe environments but we have no say in what happens off campus. As well as being concerned for the health of students and staff, I have particular worries about my Department. We’ve been short-staffed since the start of term and simply have no spare effort to provide cover for lectures or tutorials if anyone becomes sick.

The Irish Health Service is under extreme pressure and the delivery of booster shots is being rolled out very slowly. I had my second Pfizer dose in June so should get a third shot in December but it is not clear that I will. I’m not going anywhere at Christmas anyway so that’s not a big deal but I’m worried by the broader picture. A cartoon in a recent issue of Private Eye is very apt:

Might we have to switch our lectures back online again before Christmas? Might our examinations be online again in January? Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see but I think the blackboard in my study might be back in use very soon.

Notes from Half Way

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve now reached the halfway point in our teaching semester at Maynooth University. That means there are another six weeks of teaching before the end of term break. I was looking through the notes of my modules this morning in order to make a plan for the rest of term and was relieved to find that I’m roughly on track to finish on time. That is despite the first years starting a week late and lectures being 45 minutes long instead of 50.

At this point I’m still finding it very disconcerting talking to an audience of masked students, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just talking at a camera. Quite a few times I’ve been walking around campus and a student without a face covering has said “hello Peter” or words to that effect and I’ve smiled and said “hello” back while wondering who they were. Outside, you see, people take their masks off while, inside, I’m the only person whose face is uncovered.

Still, at least during lectures I get to make eye contact with the students. I don’t know why that matters so much to me, but it does. I remember as a student I had some lecturers who were pathologically incapable of making eye contact with the class, usually staring at a spot about six feet over the heads of the students. I found that most off-putting.

Although it still feels a bit weird, I’m glad that the mask-wearing protocol is being observed very well at least in lecture theatres. Unfortunately cases are skyrocketing right now – almost 4000 yesterday, as high as last January – which is all very worrying. Are we going to move to a Plan B? I doubt it, because the Government doesn’t seem to have one. Nevertheless I do think there’s still a significant possibility of our January exams being moved online yet again, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

Meanwhile, in the UK, University staff have been balloted over industrial action relating to the USS pension scheme and to various issues relating to terms and conditions. The majority of votes cast were in favour of strikes, but some institutions did not reach the 50% threshold required for strike action to be legal (some by just a handful of votes) and others achieved the threshold in only one of the disputes. I don’t know what will happen next, but I’d like to express my solidarity with those taking what I consider to be entirely justified action.

I couldn’t resist quoting this from the Universities UK statement on the dispute:

After a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption.

Yes, it has been a difficult 18 months for students, but the absence of even a teeny bit of recognition that it has also been very difficult for staff is extremely telling.

I’m taking a particular interest in the disputes not only because I have friends and former colleagues in the UK but also because I have the best part of 30 years’ contributions locked into the USS pension scheme, plus some additional voluntary contribitions, and am relying on the benefits from those for my own retirement. If anything happens to that source of income I am financially screwed.

Apart from the USS scheme, the other side of the UCU dispute concerns ‘four fights‘ over:

  1. Pay
  2. Workload
  3. Equality
  4. Casualisation

These issues don’t only apply in the UK, of course. Workloads in my Department are at ridiculous levels – not only for me – and we have been forced by Management decisions into a situation in which half of our lecturing is being done by staff on short-term contracts. I suspect that the unpaid overtime we have put in during the pandemic is the expectation for the future, and I see no sign of the casualisation of our teaching staff being reversed in the immediate future. I hope I’m proved wrong, but in the meantime I’m keeping a close eye on my USS pension in case early retirement proves the only way to escape…

Meeting in Person

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on October 16, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday was the end of Week 4 of the Autumn Semester. Because Hallowe’en is on Sunday this year, the mid-term study break is a bit earlier than usual, meaning that Week 5 is the last week before that. That’s not to say we have a holiday of course, apart from the October Bank Holiday on 25th October, the first day of that week. There is, however no teaching in that week. Although the break is welcome, it does mean a rather long run-in of seven uninterrupted weeks of teaching until the Christmas break.

Anyway, yesterday we had our first in-person Departmental Meeting since I don’t know when. It wasn’t quite “normal” as some members of the Department joined via Teams, everyone wore masks and we held the meeting in a large-ish lecture theatre to enable physical distancing. We still have one lecturer who is not able to be in Ireland because of visa delays, so he joined remotely. At least there is a sign of movement on that issue, and we think he’ll be in Ireland and ready to teach after the study break, on November 1st. We did have student representatives present, which was very welcome, as it was difficult to arrange during the lockdown.

Although I’ve had about 18 months of practice to get used to virtual meetings I still dislike them so intensely that my heart sinks whenever anyone calls one that I have to attend, which is depressingly often. Meetings in person are so much better in my view. I don’t know why that is. Just call me old-fashioned. I think yesterday’s meeting went rather well, all things considered, with contributions from just about everyone present.

The October study break is traditionally when we prepare our examinations for the January period. One of the most important items on the agenda was what to do for this January. The official line is that we’re supposed to return to normal, with traditional examinations on campus. I think most lecturers will do their exams like that unless the public health situation deteriorates even more rapidly and we are forced to switch online again. With Covid-19 cases rising significantly, that is a distinct possibility.

I think most staff agree that there are positives to the online style of examinations and I’ve left it up to individuals to decide what they think is best for their particular modules. The important thing however is to inform the students as quickly as possible so they know what’s going to hit them. Students in Year 2 have never had a “traditional” examination at Maynooth and those in Year 3 only had one set, way back in January 2020. They will need to readjust to not having an “open book” style of examination. On the other hand, in theoretical physics we try to test problem-solving rather than memory so I think we’re in a better position than many disciplines to manage this.

First-year students this year are in a different but also tricky situation, in that they are facing their first set of University examinations having had their school education significantly disrupted by the pandemic. We have to help them cope with the fact that they may not be as well prepared as students in previous years. Since I’m teaching the first-years this Semester, this means doing more revision classes and tips on examination technique.

I’ve alluded to the backdrop of rising Covid-19 cases already, and this is causing considerable uncertainty. Some time ago the Irish Government announced that most remaining public health restrictions would be scrapped from 22nd October, i.e. on Friday but case numbers are alarmingly high:

There has been a steep rise recently, not only in positive tests as shown on the graph, but also in positivity rate and hospitalizations. I think this is not surprising. The Coronavirus is circulating like wildfire in the UK right now and it is very difficult for Ireland to insulate itself from that given the open border. In addition it is still the case that about 10% of the adult population is not vaccinated and those who refuse the vaccine are also most likely not to observe social distancing, wear masks, etc. Only 1-in-10 are not vaccinated, but it only takes one to give you the virus.

At least I can say that students in my classes have observed the rules on mask-wearing diligently once in the classroom. The one-way systems in place in campus and staggered lecture start times have been less somewhat successful. I’ve arrived for classes several times only to find the previous lecturer over-running with the consequence that the students in my class are in close proximity to those in the previous class on the way in and out respectively.

I doubt if these infringements are causing significant problems, however. I think it’s far more likely that the virus is spreading in social events and on public transport. The basic problem is that in the minds of some people the pandemic is already over, though in my experience of everyday life outside the University people in shops etc are masking up and behaving sensibly.

We await the announcements due on Friday with interest. If I had to guess I would say that the Government will once again cave in to pressure from the hospitality industry and remove restrictions on bars, restaurants and nightclubs and then feign surprise that infections rise yet again. That won’t have an immediate effect on universities and colleges but it will probably prolong the pandemic well into next year, and necessitate a programme of booster shots for the whole population.

A Question of Accommodation

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

Two weeks into the Autumn Semester, we’ve now had a week of teaching first-year students and two-weeks for all other years. I won’t say there have been no challenges but I think it has gone as well as can be expected. In particular the students (at least in my lectures) have impeccably observed the protocols. Although I’ve had to improvise with the equipment they do seem to appreciate my attempts to record my classes too.

The biggest problem Irish universities seem to be facing as we emerge from the pandemic is student accommodation. The media are full of stories about this issue, pointing the social cost as well as the difficulty posed to students’ education; see, e.g. here. There is a chronic housing shortage in Ireland anyway and this is a specific manifestation of that general problem.

The situation here in Maynooth is particularly acute, with some students having to make 220km round trips by bus to and from Co Wexford. I saw that bus the other day, actually. It’s always been an issue with my Tuesday MP110 lecture (which starts at 5pm) that some students have had to leave early in order to get a bus home. Even more students are doing that this year. I’m definitely glad I decided to record my lectures for the benefit of these students who have to miss part of the class for no fault of their own.

So why is there a student accommodation crisis? One factor is that Maynooth has had a bumper year for recruitment. There is only room on campus for 1,170 students out of a total enrolment approaching 14,000 and those rooms were all snapped up weeks ago. It’s a similar situation elsewhere. Universities have not been able to construct sufficient numbers of sufficiently affordable student rooms to keep up with demand. This is partly because of high building costs and planning bureaucracy, but also because Irish third-level institutions are strapped for cash thanks to decades of underfunding.

But there’s another issue, caused by the lingering effect of Covid-19. A significant number of students at Maynooth usually rent rooms locally in a family home on a four or five days a week basis, sometimes with meals included. This sort of arrangement is highly unusual in the UK, so it surprised me when I first moved here that so many students live that way. On the weekends they go back to their families, often travelling a considerable distance to do so. Typically these students arrive in Maynooth on Sunday evening or Monday morning and leave on Friday afternoon or evening; we see lots of students waiting for buses on the Kilcock Road on Friday afternoons.

Because we’re not fully out of Covid-19 restrictions, the supply of rooms available on this kind of letting arrangement is greatly diminished because of the perceived risk of a tenant being infectious (especially for elderly landlords). I know personally quite a few people who used to offer this kind of accommodation but are not doing so this year, hence the particular difficulty. I hope this situation improves soon, but for the time being it leaves many students having to commute great distances. I hope this doesn’t lead to some with difficult journeys dropping out.

I actually feel a bit guilty about this myself. I have a spare room in my house in Maynooth. It’s not huge but it has a single bed and a small desk in it so would work quite well for a student. I don’t really need the money, though it would be useful, but given the crisis I’ve thought of offering it as a weekday let. I do think, however, that it would be very awkward for a member of University staff to be landlord to one of their own students (both for me and for the student). On top of that, after such a long time as a bachelor I’ve just got used to living on my own! It’s a bit selfish, I know, but I therefore decided not to do it, though if there is an emergency (such as if people get snowed in as happened a few years ago) I would obviously offer my spare room as temporary accommodation.

The End of an Era

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 29, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon I attended an event in the Aula Maxima on Maynooth University Campus to bid farewell to the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan who has been in that position for 10 years and who steps down at the end of September (i.e tomorrow). For the last 18 months he has been chairing the Epidemiological Modelling effort as part of National Public Health Emergency Team dealing with Covid-19.

Here are two views of the ceremony taken from my position next to a radiator (it was quite cold today) :

Presentation of Gifts
Farewell Speech

After the formal indoor bit of the event in which the number in the audience was strictly limited and masks were worn, we adjourned outside for a reception which was especially nice because it’s the first social event I’ve attended in person for a very long time. In fact I haven’t been in the Aula Maxima for a couple of years either!

It was a pleasant occasion with many warm and well-delivered contributions, and I think was a fitting tribute to a President who has held his office with great distinction. I had the opportunity to wish Professor Nolan all the best in person over a glass of wine at the reception but I’d like to repeat it publicly here. After all, it was on his watch that I got my position here. Farewell, Prof. Nolan, and please accept my very best wishes for the future.

The only disappointment for me is that among the speeches by academics and other staff there was no time for personal appearance by Maynooth University Library Cat…