Archive for Covid-19

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?

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…

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.

Popping up on Campus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 24, 2021 by telescoper

Well that’s the end of Week 1 of the new regime (or Week 0 for new students). Apart from quite a few timetabling issues and a staff short shortage it hasn’t gone too badly. I also heard today that next week there will be a “pop-up vaccination centre” on Maynooth University campus.

I think this is a good idea.

Talking of things popping up on campus, I think Maynooth University Library Cat has been enjoying the attention he’s been getting from returning staff and students. In fact his little abode is now an official calling point on the Campus Tours for new students.

Being petted and pampered can be exhausting however and occasionally he likes to withdraw to his quarters for a rest..

Anyway, it’s been a hectic week and the new students arrive tomorrow so now it’s definitely long past wine o’clock…

A Year at Home

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

I was reminded this morning that it was a year ago yesterday that I received the keys to my house in Maynooth. I didn’t move in straight away as the house was empty and I had paid the rent on the flat I was living in until the end of August, so I moved my things gradually over the course of a week or so. Looking through all the paperwork this morning I found the pictures that the Estate Agent had used to advertise the property. Here are a few of them:

You’ll see that the bookshelves in the sitting room were empty at the time. They mostly still are. I didn’t think this time last year that I’d still be waiting a year later for my belongings to arrive from Cardiff, but at least they are in transit now. Delivery is pencilled in for next week, as a matter of fact; doing the removal on the cheap as a return load meant waiting a few weeks. I am looking forward to filling the shelves with my books (20-odd boxes of them) and putting up my own artwork. I’ve had enough of bare walls.

This morning our weekly Faculty Executive meetings resumed, the main topic of discussion – as it was this time last year – being the plans to return to on-campus teaching next month. I thought it would be interesting to show a comparison between the Covid-19 figures in Ireland on August 25th 2020 and August 25th 2021:

You will see that the daily case numbers in Ireland are currently about a factor 20 higher than they were this time last year: yesterday we had 2051 new Covid-19 cases in Ireland; a year ago there were 92. That is significant because the effect of vaccines in suppressing serious illness is at most 95%. Since the number of cases is up by a factor of 20, in some sense the risk level if everyone in the population were vaccinated would be about the same now as it was this time last year. And of course not everyone actually is vaccinated, and not everyone will be by the time teaching starts again on 20th September.

Last year the case numbers increased substantially between August and September meaning that we went back into lockdown in October. We don’t know whether or not case numbers will increase again this year, of course, but from the point of view of resuming teaching we’re really in no better shape now than we were at this time last year. Our optimism then was misplaced and that may well be true now too. This is why so many people in the University system are nervous about the edicts we have been given to return to full lecture theatres with no social distancing, no mandatory masks, and no vaccination certificates. This seems like asking for trouble.

On a personal note, I am pleased to report that the mild symptoms I mentioned on Monday have completely disappeared and, to no surprise at all, my PCR test came back negative. It may or may not be relevant that the weather has improved greatly over the last two or three days. I have now come to the conclusion that what I had was some form of seasonal allergy, possibly connected with crop harvesting in the area spreading pollen or fungal spores. The latter are more prevalent in damp or humid weather, which might be the reason for reduction in effect now. Or it could just be that a nearby farmer has stopped doing whatever he was doing. I don’t know enough about field theory to be certain.

Anyway, all of this means I can now stop self-isolating and start returning to campus again. To be honest, though, it was rather nice self-isolating at home as I spent most of the time working in the garden…

Self-isolating…

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 23, 2021 by telescoper

This time last week I started trying to readjust to working from my office in Maynooth University but I’ve already had to put that on pause (hopefully temporarily).

Over the last several days I’ve been experiencing bouts of sneezing, a frequent runny nose, some sinus pressyre, and uncomfortably dry eyes. These seem to me symptoms of hay-fever (though it is a bit late in the year for that) or some other allergy, rather than Covid-19, but based on what I’ve read about the so-called Delta variant I phoned my GP.

I don’t have the more usual symptoms of Covid-19 (neither cough nor sore throat nor fever) – in fact I don’t really fall unwell at all apart from the sporadic sneezing – so my GP said he thought it was very unlikely to be the Coronavirus. I’m also fully vaccinated, though that doesn’t mean I can be infected. Nevertheless he recommended I self-isolate as a precaution for a few days to see what, if anything, develops. So that is what I am doing.

I’m supposed to be recording video material for orientation week, which I can do just as easily at home. To counter the sneezing I’ll just record everything in small chunks.

As for the symptoms, my money is on some kind of allergy, but I wonder what? I’ve never experienced hay-fever in late August before!

Anyway, I’m glad this has happened before the start of teaching: as we’re supposed to do lectures and tutorials in person from next month, a person who is self-isolating won’t be able to teach and we have so few staff it will be difficult to find cover…

Update: the likeliest explanation seems to be a fungal spore allergy, as the release of fungal spores is triggered by crop harvesting. Maynooth is in an agricultural area and August is harvest time. Allergens of this sort also thrive in humid weather which we certainly have had recently.

Vaccination for Lectures?

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

The full guidelines on the return to on-campus teaching in September that I referred to on Monday have now been distributed to all staff, not without comment.

Basically the new advice is that in-person teaching will return in September (in fact a month from today in Maynooth) for all forms of class except lectures containing over 250 people, which will be online. Lecture halls and labs will be at full capacity, i.e. with no social distancing requirement. Students will be “asked” to wear face coverings, but we are told not to attempt to enforce this. Importantly, there will be no requirement for students to have been vaccinated in order to attend lectures.

In Ireland there is a vaccination passport system so that those who wish to dine indoors at a bar or restaurant have to show vaccination status. Perhaps someone can explain to me how it makes sense for this to be a requirement in a restaurant while it is not a requirement for a student having to sit for an hour in close proximity to up to 249 others with no social distancing and no mandatory face coverings.

This conundrum is taken to another level of absurdity when you consider that a student wishing to get lunch indoors on campus will presumably have to show their vaccine passport?

There is an article here that argues that a safe return in the presence of the delta-variant requires 90% of the student population to have been vaccinated.

A more acceptable plan would have students show their vaccination status when enrolling on the course. Those who are unvaccinated but willing to have a vaccination shot could be vaccinated there and then and be allowed to attend lectures when the vaccine takes effect. Or I should say “could have been” because the facilities required to do on-campus vaccinations have not been set up and now there probably isn’t time. Those that refuse to have a vaccine should attend lectures online on a permanent basis.

(How such a scheme would be policed is a difficult question: we don’t usually have people on the doors of lecture theatres checking student IDs or anything and there is a far greater rate of traffic at the start of a lecture than you would have at a restaurant…)

There will of course be some students who are at very high risk and should not be attending lectures anyway even if vaccinated. For them we should be providing lecture recordings. Unfortunately I don’t think we have good enough facilities to record live lectures from theatres as there has been inadequate investment in cameras etc. If we’re told we have to provide lecture recordings, for many of us that means doing the lectures twice. And so our workload increases.

On the other hand it seems increasingly likely to me that all this will be irrelevant. New case numbers are running at about 1800 per day, a level that the HSE admits to being “unsustainable”. When the first colleges return in September, a substantial surge can be expected and everything will be back online anyway.

It’s like déjà vu all over again…

The vaccine effect

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I saw this nifty graphic from the Financial Times floating around on social media and thought I would share it here. It’s a nice demonstration of the way the use of vaccines has impacted mortality rates from Covid-19. Basically the vaccines reduce the probability of a death by a factor greater than 10 (i.e. are more than 90% effective in doing this). On the logarithmic plot this appears as a downward shift in the “risk of death” that is more or less independent of age.

This behaviour is generally consistent with the observation that while infections in the UK are quite high the mortality rate is still rather low. Low is not zero, however, and there will still be some deaths if infection levels are high: a small fraction of a large number can still be significant.

Incidentally, about 70% of the adult population of Ireland has now been vaccinated with about 80% having received partial vaccination. The fraction of the total population fully vaccinated is about 54%. On this measure Spain has just overtaken the UK in vaccinations; Ireland is well above average for the EU. The USA and Israel have both flattened out considerably.

When I got back from my break I tried my best to update the statistics relating to Ireland here. Doing so reminded me that when I first decided to plot the data on a log y-axis I got a slew of comments on Twitter complaining that I was “manipulating the data”! The backlash against anything even simple mathematics is quite extraordinary sometimes.

Anyway, the latest logarithmic plot looks like this:

The death figures are unreliable because of the lingering effects on the ransomware attack on the Health Service Executive IT system but do seem to be much lower relative to infections than they were at earlier stages of the pandemic, even allowing for the fact that the first peak in the case curve should be higher as testing was not so extensive at this early stage. The 7-day average of new cases is currently around 1200-1300 per day.

It still fascinates me how the case numbers managed to stay roughly constant for such a long time at such a high level earlier this year…