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Winter term updates: Explanation on dates, accommodation for child care

Posted by Frank Harvey, Provost and Vice-President Academic (Acting); Gitta Kulczycki, Vice-President Finance and Administration on December 18, 2020 in News

MEMORANDUM  

To:                  Dalhousie faculty and staff  

From:              Frank Harvey, Provost and Vice-President Academic (Acting) 
                        Gitta Kulczycki, Vice-President Finance and Administration  

Date:               Friday, December 18, 2020  

Re:                  Winter term updates: Explanation on dates, accommodation for child care  

As the fall term ends and the December break approaches, it’s abundantly clear to all of us how extensive, time consuming and challenging the work has been to deliver a safe and successful experience for our students this year. Every aspect of how we operate as an institution has changed – from online course delivery to the re-imagination of residence operations and residence life to adjusting athletic and library access as restrictions change and beyond.  

While the arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccine bodes well for a return to some new normal later in 2021, for the time being we will continue to work within the confines of the current environment as we prepare for the upcoming winter term.  

Dalhousie’s approach to supporting students, faculty, researchers, and staff this winter is one that considers the unique circumstances here in Atlantic Canada (with self-isolation protocols absent for our U15 peers), prioritizes student wellness and success, and empowers our instructors, Department Chairs, Directors, and Deans with the authority to address the workload concerns facing our faculty members and students.  

We have implemented several new measures to improve the teaching and learning experience this winter, based on feedback from the spring/summer and fall terms. We’ve also received questions from our community on a few items that we wanted to answer before the break.   

Explanation for our winter term approach

In approaching the winter semester, we know that other universities have decided late in the semester to delay the start of the winter term. To do so, many have had to eliminate the February study break and modify or condense their final exam schedules.  

These options were carefully considered by the Return to Campus committee (RTC) earlier in September, with input from across our Dal community. Such input was essential given the impact this change would have on Dalhousie faculty and students. One of the RTC's core guiding principles for this academic year has been to be as clear as possible to students and all members of our community about what they can expect several months in advance to allow faculty and students the opportunity to plan accordingly.  

The RTC consensus was that maintaining the February mid-term break was a priority, because it takes place at a point in the semester when students will need the time to breathe, regroup, complete assignments and prepare for the end of term and final exams. We also agreed that it was important to retain the current exam schedule and dates, rather than collapse the exam schedule to compensate for a late start to the winter term, to avoid the inevitable assignment and exam conflicts resulting from a shorter exam period.  

Making this decision early in the fall also allowed many other aspects of Return to Campus planning to proceed, including planning face-to-face delivery of courses for accredited programs for 2,000 students, experiential learning classes for another 500 students, reopening of residences (including quarantine schedules for those students needing to self-isolate in January), and the return of international students in early January carefully scheduled for mandatory quarantine in Halifax hotels — all planned and organized by our amazing Students Affairs team.The logistics and related resources invested in this planning would be seriously disrupted if Dalhousie were to revisit this decision late in the semester.

In summary, a change to the start date of classes was not a good fit for Dalhousie. What we’ve done in our approach is to consider the unique circumstances here in Atlantic Canada, prioritize student wellness and success, and, as noted earlier, empower support instructors, Department Chairs, Directors, and Deans in addressing workload concerns of faculty members and students. 

  • Through our Deans and Associate Deans Academic, we are actively encouraging all instructors who are able to do so to ease slowly into course material this winter. Examples may include using the first week of class in a very limited way, such as simply opening Brightspace sites and posting the syllabus but not necessarily diving into course content, delivering lectures, or posting assignments.
  • We are accommodating self-isolation or child-care needs for in-person instruction. Instructors engaging in a slow start for in-person course elements are expected to manage the first two weeks of material online. If other accommodations are required, course instructors have the academic freedom to manage their courses in ways that address the workload pressure they and their students are experiencing. 
  • As instructors transition to regular teaching in the second week of the term (January 11), we have established a set of model course site structures for Brightspace, informally known as 'templates.’ These templates aim to provide students with a consistent learning environment while also supporting faculty in the setup of their online course spaces. The templates are fully customizable and implementing them is optional. More information can be found on theOnline Teaching website
  • We are increasing support to instructors with additional staffing in the Centre for Learning and Teaching (educational developers) and Academic Technology Services (course builders) and making course development support available during portion of the December break for those who need or want to access it. More information can be foundin the news section of the Online Teaching website
  • We have implemented a PASS/ILL grading option that allows students to voluntarily have their grades converted from a standard letter grades to a grade of either PASS or ILL, with a majority of Faculties offering this option to students. This will apply in both the fall and winter terms. For more information, including Frequently Asked Questions for students,visit the Academic Support site.  

We strongly encourage instructors to take the opportunity to ease into the winter term whenever possible. This is an option to ease the early-term burden on everyone (instructors, students and support services) without a formal delay to the term. This approach avoids the unintended consequences and negative ripple effects of an extended winter term that would have had a serious impact on students enrolled in accredited programs, undermined the significant investment in time and resources to plan for self-isolation and mandatory quarantine, and disrupted hundreds of other students who would have already made travel plans.   

Accommodations for the first week back   

Last week it was announced that Nova Scotia’s public schools will not be re-opening to students until January 11 as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the school system following the December break. We know this may bear heavily and unexpectedly on many faculty and staff who are parents. As we all know, these burdens tend to be carried more heavily, although not uniformly, by parents who are women.  

Dalhousie’s approach to child-care-related accommodations over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to support individuals with extraordinary child-care responsibilities to ensure that they can prioritize caring for their children with as minimal an impact on their employment at Dalhousie as possible.  

This has generally meant approving flexible work arrangements and in some cases temporary periods of reduced work hours without loss of pay or vacation. Given the unique circumstances of the pandemic, we have not and will not require documentary support to approve these kinds of temporary accommodations. We will continue to approach the additional week in January with compassion and flexibility to support the needs of our faculty and staff who are also parents and who are carrying this additional unexpected responsibility.  

We ask that impacted employees, Deans and other leaders seek the support of Accessible Employment in Human Resources to assist them (Accessible.Employment@dal.ca). We will explore accommodations via alternate work arrangements with staff and faculty before entertaining temporary periods of leave with pay. However, in situations where alternative child-care arrangements cannot be made, nobody will be expected to use vacation time to manage child-care responsibilities for the week of January 4- 8 should time away from work be required.  

We would like to remind everyone that Dalhousie is a member of Kids & Company, a child-care service in Halifax. This membership gives faculty and staff at Dalhousie priority access to a host of child-care services including back-up child-care for children up to age 12 as well as after-hours babysitting services. Please visit https://kidsandcompany.com/ for information on child care services that are available.  

Additionally, SuperNOVA at Dalhousie has received funding to offer a new, free matching service for babysitters and parents looking for babysitting services, pairing Dal students with Dal parents for casual, part-time care. Parents can registerhere.  

Finally, a reminder to any faculty or staff seeking temporary workspace during that week of January 4-8 that bookable space is available on campus through Dalhousie Libraries.

Thanks and appreciation

We have heard many stories and examples of truly outstanding work during the fall term, under immensely challenging circumstances. We want everyone to know how much these efforts are appreciated by our students and our entire Dalhousie community. We know that commitment to our students’ success remains just as strong this winter — but we can only meet that commitment if we also prioritize the success and well-being of our faculty and staff. This has always been a core principle guiding RTC decisions.  

We encourage everyone to take advantage of the resources and supports available to you, to work to find ways toease into the next semester, and to use the December break to rest and realign as we move forward into the winter. Let’s continue to look after one another in 2021. 

Sincerely,

Frank Harvey
Provost and Vice-President Academic (Acting)

Gitta Kulczycki
Vice-President Finance and Administration