Archive for Covid-19

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

Thoughts on Mortality

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on September 2, 2020 by telescoper

I was updating my Covid-19 statistics page yesterday after the daily announcement and I noticed that it has now been ten consecutive days since the last Covid-19 related death in Ireland. As of yesterday there were only 40 people with Covid-19 in hospitals in the Republic, six of whom were in intensive care.

These low numbers are of course very good news indeed, but it got me wondering why. As you can see from the above graph, new cases started to increase about two months ago. In the first wave the mortality figures started to grow with a much shorter lag, although it is difficult to be too precise about it because of delays in testing and reporting that shifted the blue curve to the right.

With new cases in the Republic now appearing at an average rate of around 100 per day and assuming a mortality rate of a few percent, one might have expected to see the mortality figures rising, but this has not happened. It must be said though that the current level of new cases is much lower than the initial peak, as this linear plot (also smoothed on a 7-day window) makes clear:

An even more remarkable case is that of France (data from here):

The blue curve is a 7-day moving average. You can see that the level of new cases in France is about the same as it was in late March. The daily mortality figure however looks like this:

So the mortality rate among recent cases is much lower in France than in Ireland.

I’m not going to discuss mortality data in the United Kingdom as these are being fiddled by the Government who have arbitrarily decided not to count anyone who dies more than 4 weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 in the figures. It’s a blatant con intended to make people think that the situation in the UK is better than it actually is.

I suppose the main factor for this is that the more recent cases are not happening in hospitals or care homes and they are affecting mainly younger people who have no underlying health conditions; over 70% of the recent cases in Ireland are people under the age of 45. It may also be that the treatment of patients is more effective now that it was in March and April.

Some people are arguing on social media are saying that data such as these prove that the Coronavirus has lost its potency and is no longer a threat. In order to provide evidence in support of such a claim one would have to take account of the differences in demographic and health history of new cases versus older ones, and I have not seen such a study.

Update: I had a terrible feeling that this would happen, but the same day I wrote this a further Covid-19 related death was reported. This was however a late notification of a death that occurred in June. For the latest figures see here.

Back to Returning to Campus Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 1, 2020 by telescoper

Three weeks ago I was writing about our plans for returning to campus at Maynooth University only to be rudely interrupted the very next day by new restrictions that forced us to put those plans on ice. Now we have about four weeks to get everything in place so we have to crack on.

Today the University wrote to all students outlining the general approach we are taking at Maynooth, but the details vary enormously from subject to subject. That is because the capacity of lecture theatres and laboratories and seminar rooms is reduced considerably to maintain the proper distancing between students. Classes will inevitably be smaller but we haven’t got any more rooms, so the number of face-to-face sessions will have to decrease. This affects every subject but hits very large courses much harder than smaller ones.

I will be in at the deep end on September 28th as I am teaching our first-year Mathematical Physics module, MP110. That is in Physical Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90 reduced to 27 by physical distancing requirements. Last year I had about 85 students in the class so it was full every time. This term I can fit only about one-third of that number in any session. There are three lectures per week in that module which means that if I have up to 81 students then each will be able to attend one lecture. Those unable to attend a lecture will be able to view recordings. Over the summer the University has been installing Panopto, a lecture-capture system we used to have when I was in Cardiff, so recordings of each session can be made. I also intend to record offline supplementary material for the class.

In addition to lectures each student on MP110 previously had a weekly tutorial. For the tutorials the students were split into 4 groups, but this year the reduced room capacities will probably require us to have more, smaller groups or to move to bi-weekly tutorials.

All of this is very sensitive to numbers, and we won’t know those until very close to the start of term. If we get more students than last year we will to revise the plans. The start of term is likely require quite a lot of last-minute adjustment.

For returning students on more specialist modules the classes are smaller and the impact less severe. I will also be teaching a second-year module MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series next term. Not everyone who does Mathematical Physics in Year 1 continues with it to the second year so we expect roughly 50 on MP201. With that number we may be able to run lectures as normal (which means two a week) but may have to switch to bi-weekly tutorials. We expect third and fourth year classes to run quite close to normal. At least we will know the numbers of returning students fairly soon and can lock those plans in, leaving the 1st year to be dealt with last.

On top of all this we do have to have contingency plans in case the local or national Covid-19 situation deteriorates so far that we have to close the campus again. We will be in a better position to deal with that than we were back in March, as we have learned a lot very quickly and now have better equipment.

This afternoon the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, sent a message to all students that included the following:

Most of the large modules will use streaming of lectures so that you will receive some of the lectures on-line, and will be invited to attend less frequently than usual. Tutorials and practicals will also have reduced capacity, and in some cases the frequency will be reduced. The content of each module will remain largely unchanged, so you will be introduced to the same ideas, concepts and challenges. What will change is the format of delivery, and you will learn through a combination of live classes and on-screen material. We will publish more information, and details of the contact time in sample modules on the COVID page of the university website.

This reduced time on campus will mean that you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning, and ensure that you keep up with both the on-campus and on-line teaching.

Some of you are wondering if you need to attend at all, and whether you could complete your studies remotely. We are not a distance teaching university, and most of our courses are designed for on-campus delivery. So there will be times when you need to be on campus, and you will need to make sure that you can get to the campus when you need to.

I’ve seen some of the draft plans for other departments and it seems that the Department of Theoretical Physics is probably going to be one of the departments whose students will spend the most time on campus, with about 50% of the normal contact time. That’s primarily because we are small(ish) so can be a little more flexible. I also think that mathematical physics is a subject that needs students to take responsibility for their own learning anyway because much of it is problem-based. You can do physics problems at home or on the bus just as well as sitting in a room on campus.

I know some students are questioning the need to come on campus at all if they have so few contact hours and material is made available via recordings anyway. I can only speak for my own Department when I say that we think there is a huge value attached to in-person teaching, which is why we are trying so hard to maximize the on-campus experience for our students. It won’t quite be business as usual but will be the very best we can do under the constraints we have imposed on us. We’re doing the best we can but we do need students to play their part too!

P.S. I note that, for example, Waterford Institute of Technology is taking a quite different approach, with all lectures and tutorials going online for the whole academic year 2020/21.

Kildare Unlocked!

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on August 31, 2020 by telescoper

I just heard that the powers that be have decided to lift the restrictions on County Kildare that have been in place since August 8th. That means we can get on with the business of planning for return to campus at the end of September. I’m not sure how much of today’s decision has to do with the actual Covid-19 situation and how much to with the pressure from Kildare businesses, or the fact that many people were ignoring the restrictions anyway, but at least there’s now clarity. With just a month to go before we return to teaching, this is welcome news.

The latest national data on new cases do indeed show a bit of a decline. This graph shows a 7-day moving average

The downturn looks very small but is significant – from 115.3 to 101.9 since yesterday – but the more important thing for Kildare is that cases in the county are no longer many times above the national average. You can find the complete daily record of deaths and new cases here.

It seems strange to me the way that some people from County Kildare interpreted the local restrictions as some sort of punishment rather than as an attempt to prevent outbreaks spreading into the community. Anyway, if we’re no longer in lockdown does that mean we’re now locked up?

Back to School

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 26, 2020 by telescoper

News that primary and secondary schools in Ireland are re-opening this week reminded me of this picture I saw a year ago:

I suppose the items on display there provide one way of dealing with the stress of worrying whether re-opening will result in a large increase in Covid-19 cases!

Meanwhile the Third Level sector is also preparing to re-open. Although we have another month to go before teaching is supposed to restart at Maynooth University, I’m already getting quite a few emails from students asking what things are going to be like when it resumes in September. All I can answer is what our plans are, but whether or not we can put those plans into practice depends crucially on things outside my control, including local factors (such as the number of students taking each module) and national factors (especially the restrictions intended to prevent the spread of Covid-19).

On the first matter we’ll have to wait until students register which, for first years will be very late in the day because of the delayed leaving certificate results this year. We will know a bit sooner about returning students, but even for them it will be a couple of weeks or so.

The national picture is even more uncertain. As of yesterday, the average number of new Covid-19 cases per day over the last 7 days was an uncomfortably high 103.6:

Over the next month will the local lockdown in Kildare carry on? What will be the impact of schools’ reopening? Will the national Covid-19 picture improve or deteriorate? Although at this stage we plan to resume (partly) campus-based teaching on September 28th, but we have to accept that if things take a turn for the worse we might not be able to do that and will instead have to go online. We’ll just have to wait and see.

That doesn’t help students, of course, because they have to make decisions about accommodation and travel. It’s a very awkward and stressful situation for them but I think the only way to approach the queries I’m getting is to tell the truth. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the only honest answer.

At least my own preparations are proceeding. I’ve just had my own tensor barrier put in. This is intended to deter people from wandering into my office and spreading their germs. I don’t think the installation is finished yet, however, as it doesn’t seem to be connected to the mains electricity.

The Week Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on August 23, 2020 by telescoper

On Friday I finished correcting the batch of Repeat examinations that were within my remit. I think the other staff have done likewise. All the marks now get uploaded and cross-checked and before another meeting of the Exam Board the year’s examination process to an end.

There’s no time to pause, however, as we go straight into the preparations for next academic year. Nobody knows quite how things are going to go, and no doubt we’ll have to adapt quickly to changes in the national situation. County Kildare, wherein Maynooth is located, remains in a sort of mini-lockdown for the next two weeks. It is not a very welcome distinction to be in the only County under “special measures” – Laois and Offaly – were stood down on Friday – but I’m optimistic that local Covid-19 outbreaks will be sufficiently well controlled to let us relax fully well before term starts.

At least after the Repeats we will know how many returning students we have on which modules so can start firming up the arrangements for Years 2 to 4.

Year 1 will have to wait for the Leaving Certificate results which won’t be out until after September 7th. Teaching starts on 28th September so final arrangements for new students will have to be made at the last minute. As it happens I’m teaching the first module for Mathematical Physics. I have a basic a plan of what I want to do but the details are dependent on precisely how many students we have.

For new students there is an Orientation Week before teaching starts which this year will be virtual, so in preparation for that I’ll be recording video presentations for the new students on different courses. They all have to be done by Wednesday.

There’s also sorting out contracts for tutors, training on new software and hardware for teaching, and writing lecture notes to be getting on with.

On top of all that, if there are no last minute hitches, I should be getting the keys to my new home on Wednesday so will be moving in later in the week. I have paid this month’s rent on the flat so have until the end of the month to move out. I can therefore do a relatively gradual transition over a few days, working around work commitments. Not that I have much to move: a lot of my personal effects are still in Wales and there’s no way I can get back retrieve them at the moment. Although the timing could have been better, I’m looking forward to living in a home of my own once more.

Covid-19 in Ireland: No End in Sight

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish Government put the brakes on the relaxation of the restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and tightened up some existing rules. The reason for this move is obvious when you look at the data:

After dropping to very low numbers of new cases a couple of months ago, the curve has been steadily rising. On Saturday 200 new cases were reported and yesterday the figure was 190. The average number of cases per day over the last 7 days is now over a hundred. The last time it was that high was in early May.

So what has gone wrong?

A large fraction of the cases appearing in the latest outbreaks is associated with either meat (or other food) processing plants and with direct provision centres. These are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because of the difficulty of maintaining social distancing. Most of the people involved however are under the age of 40, so these outbreaks are not (yet) associated with a significant increase in mortality. Until recently it was hoped these localised `events’ could be contained by testing, contact-tracing and isolation.

Unfortunately these outbreaks are happening at a time when public adherence to Covid-19 restrictions has also been declining. I have noticed over the past few weeks that many people in Maynooth are congregating outside, especially in Courthouse Square, without any attempt at social distancing and with nobody wearing a face masks. Pubs in the area are serving drinks to take away and people are just taking them outside and treating the public areas as a big beer garden. The law it seems can do nothing about this, and pub landlords are doing nothing to discourage it.

The problem in this respect started back in June when the (then) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar decided to accelerate the stages of the Roadmap. I didn’t understand this at the time. The plan was carefully thought out and was working. Why change it? The answer is of course intensive lobbying from vested interests worried about the impact on their own finances.

Anyway, the effect of this change was immediately noticeable in that a sizeable contingent of the public clearly thought it was a signal that the Covid-19 outbreak was over and became complacent about the continuing risk of community transmission.

I think of the outbreaks in factories and direct provision centres as sparks that can hopefully be snuffed out quickly. The real risk to the public however is from these sparks spreading the conflagration into the general population. Social distancing acts like a sort of fire break – that’s what the new restrictions are trying to achieve.

What this means for the next month or so I can’t say, but I wouldn’t rule out a full lockdown being imposed again.I hope that doesn’t happen because I am looking forward to getting back to teaching, but it’s looking touch-and-go at the moment.

 

On the Eve of the Repeats

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 11, 2020 by telescoper

I won’t deny that I was caught on the hop by Friday’s sudden announcement of a partial lockdown in an area that includes Maynooth but at least we’ve had a couple of working days to activate Plan B and get all the online assessments ready to replace the repeat examinations that were due to start on campus tomorrow.

Happily all the necessary supports were provided quickly over the weekend and I think we’re now ready to go, with the first paper(s) starting tomorrow morning at 9.30am. There will be several of these per day for the next week or so so it’s going to be a busy period supervising them (remotely) and then marking the scripts when they’re finished. At least we have now got some experience of these tests, having done these before (in May). There are also fewer candidates for the repeats than first time round so it should all be manageable.

When the repeat exams are all marked and the Exam Board finished, we should have a firm idea how many students are progressing to the next academic year so we can draw up plans for lectures and tutorials in September.

Apart that is for the first year, where we won’t know the numbers until September. That will cause a bit of a rush but I’m sure we’ll manage.

All of this assumes that we are doing on-campus teaching in September, which would require the local lockdown to have been lifted. If not we’ll have to do everything online, including tutorials. A ray of hope is that the number of new cases is just 35 today, down from 174 on Saturday, but we’ll have to have nany more days like that to feel secure. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Not Returning to Campus

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 8, 2020 by telescoper

Well.

Having spent the day yesterday getting our return to campus sorted, the Government last night announced restrictions on the counties of Offaly, Laois and Kildare. Following that a message came round from the President of Maynooth University, Philip Nolan including this:

Following the announcement this evening, the gradual reopening of campus from Monday, 10th August will be paused. Staff who are working from home should, in the main, continue to do so. Staff who are coming on campus to do their work effectively may continue to do so, and in certain circumstances, staff may, with the approval of their Head of Department, return to the campus to work, where it is necessary to do their work effectively or prepare for the coming academic year.

So we’re on hold for a couple of weeks (at least). That’s frustrating but not the end of the world. I don’t imagine we would have had that many people coming in over the next two weeks anyway.

On the bright side the recent outbreaks are very localised and there is a good testing and tracking system in place, which suggests they can be contained through isolation. On the other hand they are large clusters and it only takes a small amount of leakage to trigger a much wider spread.

Of more immediate concern is this:

Unfortunately, the restriction on travel means that it is no longer appropriate to go ahead with the on-campus resit examinations scheduled for next week. We will work with the colleagues involved and where possible we will replace these with online exams at the same times; where this is not possible, we will reschedule the exams at the earliest feasible time. We will of course continue to support our students in their studies in every way that we can.

Obviously we can’t hold examinations on campus if students can’t travel here from other counties. There is also a restriction of six on the number of people at an indoor event which would rule them out too.

Fortunately we have a Plan B and all these examinations will be replaced by online timed assessments. That means a busy couple of days next week – the exams are due to start next Wednesday (12th August) – but it is manageable.

I know a lot of people are angry about the new (partial) lockdown, especially pubs and restaurants. In my opinion the decision yesterday was inevitable given the steep increase in new cases (98 reported yesterday) :

Update: 174 new cases today (Saturday 8th August). Grim.

This growth is dominated by clusters of infections, mostly in meat processing works, in the three counties under lockdown. That includes 80 announced yesterday in the same plant. None of these is particularly close to Maynooth but the country boundaries are the only simple way of imposing local restrictions.

Serious questions do need to be asked, though, about how we got to this situation.

Outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants have been widely reported elsewhere for months, and Ireland does not seem to have learned from these. There are allegations that the plants involved may not have undergone proper inspections and that public health guidance has not been followed. The present circumstances could well be a result of negligence on the side of the businesses concerned and/or the government. These issues require urgent investigation to prevent possible occurrences elsewhere. If negligence can be demonstrated I sense a large number of lawsuits…

Let me just add one final comment. It seemed to me that the original return to work Roadmap, with five phases, was sensible and that it was working. I had serious reservations when it was decided to try speeding it up. If a carefully thought-out plan is working why change it on the fly?

The announcement of the accelerated Roadmap was interpreted by many in the general population as a signal that the Covid-19 epidemic in Ireland was over. Complacency set in and social distancing rules began to be flouted, especially among younger people.

I’m not saying this is the reason for the clusters in meat factories but it is probably behind the parallel increase in community transmission.

Now the Roadmap is paused and we’re behind where the original version would have put us. You can add impatience and complacency to the reasons we’re in this local difficulty.

Returning to Campus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 7, 2020 by telescoper

It’s been a busy day (so far) putting the finishing touches to return to work planning at the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. We have improved the signage and decluttered the main corridor to allow the two-way system to operate.

We’ve also fitted the odd tensor barrier (that’s what the above thing is called) to prevent people wandering into offices uninvited contrary to social distancing requirements.

As well as all that I’ve received delivery of a selection of face masks, hand gel and disinfectant wipes.

All this is because the repeat examination period starts next week and we’re consequently preparing for the second wave (of examination marking) by allowing staff to come onto campus to collect their scripts, which most should be able to do from next week.

Update: owing to the recent increases in Covid-19 cases in Kildare Offaly and Laois, as of this evening, local restrictions have been imposed on these counties. As a consequence the return to work process has been paused and all repeat exams scheduled to take place on campus will be replaced by online timed assessments. Sigh.