By: Esther Liu, Contributor

The Silhouette: Could you give an overview of the website clothmasks.ca?

Dr. Catherine Clase: We were very concerned about dialysis patients early in the pandemic and we were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the dialysis unit, particularly for patients who have to come in for in-centre hemodialysis. There wasn't enough protective equipment to allow for universal masking at that point back in March so I started reading about cloth masks and their filtration properties.

Then, we recognized quite quickly that there was a lot of evidence about this and that many examples of cloth that we found in [the] literature were actually showing fairly reasonable filtration properties. At the same time, modelling studies that were coming out were showing us that even an imperfect mask was likely to have a big effect on the pandemic. So, a group of us who are epidemiologists who normally write about kidney disease, we got together and wrote a piece around immediate community implementation of masking, recognizing the uncertainty of the evidence.

As we were writing that, the CDC was updating its guidance and then Health Canada, a few days after that. So by the time we advocated for that, the many people working in public health and many epidemiologists around the world had already come to that conclusion. We'd amassed quite a lot of information on the filtration properties of cloth and we thought it was worth publishing that. So, we published that as a review article.

Then, we knew that everybody was trying to make cloth masks or scouring the internet, trying to find the original papers trying to interpret them. We had recognized, by doing that ourselves, how difficult it was. So, we thought that it would be really great to have a plain language version for everybody else, for everybody who doesn't want to read the version that has all the technical details in it. And so, we created the website clothmasks.ca and then some volunteers translated that into other languages for us. We have had 50,000 visitors over the time that [this] has been in place.

Could you also elaborate on your role in the initiative?

My role was really to be sort of a facilitator and team lead because there was a tremendous amount of work always being done by other people . . . we had a team of people taking information out of the primary papers and creating very large tables with all this information. We did it all in duplicate and it was all checked. The people who did that were junior researchers and a PhD student, Edouard Fu. He led the data extraction team, so he did tremendously work on this initiative.

How are you finding running the initiative?

It's challenging, though we're very fortunate because McMaster recognized very early in the pandemic that there was a problem with PPE. Here in the city, here in Canada and around the world, McMaster engineering very creatively decided to use internal investments to create this new Center of Excellence in Protective Equipment Materials . . . Now, I find myself part of something so much bigger. My part is the epidemiology and my piece around cloth masks and around trying to advocate for better cloth masks to be designed. The engineers have really engaged with us. One of the engineering graduate students, Scott Laengert, he has changed his PhD to work in this area. Charles de Lannoy, his supervisor is very actively engaged [in] cloth masks. Other than that, there are many other engineers that are also working on other aspects of PPE. All the knowledge and expertise, it's all going to help build a critical mass, which is going to make PPE at every level better.

Speaking more about interdisciplinary approach, you earlier talked about how it's difficult for you to go about this since your focus is primarily on kidneys. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that?

My background is in clinical research and my clinical area is usually kidney disease. Within kidney disease, we have expertise in a whole variety of different research methods and ways of looking at things — one of the areas of expertise that I've used over the years is the expertise that allows us to summarize things in informal ways. So really, it's that part of my background that I'm drawing on.

My motivation comes from wanting to protect people with chronic diseases and the whole society more generally. Every day, I interact with my patients who are living with chronic diseases who, if they were to get COVID-19, would likely be severely affected and would likely be in the group that experiences higher mortality. On the one hand, I have these tools that come from my experience as a systematic reviewer and then on the other hand I have this motivation that tells me what to do. So, I find that, though this is challenging and it's a really new area for me, I feel really well supported by the engineers who are my new colleagues. I feel that interdisciplinary teamwork is always important and especially important in the pandemic.

What future steps are you envisioning for the initiative?

At the moment, our goal is a better cloth mask. One of the recent changes in Health Canada was to suggest that we should use this substance, polypropylene. So we wrote an article about that in the conversation about what spunbond reusable industry-grade polypropylene is.

What we're really hoping in the very long term, perhaps not for this pandemic but eventually, is that we can move away from materials such as polypropylene which is plastic – not very biodegradable – to materials that are truly sustainable. If I had a dream, that would be my doing: eventually, these pandemic community masks that we wear will be made from something that's sustainably sourced and is compostable so [disposal] doesn't have a huge environmental impact.

If I was going to dream even bigger, I would say: "What if we could have this personal protective equipment in hospitals that meet those same criteria? What if we could have reusable masks that go to the sterilizing department, get washed, get autoclaved, we can wear them again, and they are as good as the masks we're wearing now?" That is a very long way away from where we are now, perhaps an impossible dream, but if we're thinking really big, then that would be my goal.

Any additional comments?

I just want to really give a big shout out to my colleagues at the Center of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials. Before I met them, at the beginning of the pandemic, they realized that there was a problem [with] personal protective equipment: that we didn't have enough. We had no Canadian manufacturer, we had no Canadian testing, we had no ability to ramp up our internal supply. And, as you know, borders were closing and planes were getting stopped, and you remember how difficult that was. My colleagues in engineering recognized that and they stepped up and they started doing things . . . Altruistically, that thinking of "I'm going to stop doing what I normally do and I'm going to do that" and so many of them choosing that – that to me was really extraordinary. The way that they have worked as an interdisciplinary team, including those of us from medicine and epidemiology, that too has been an amazing experience. I really just want to recognize all those people who had that idea and then made it happen.

The one last thing that I want to say is that I think we all feel like there is no light on the horizon, that things may not be [getting] better. I think what we all have to do is just keep doing the things that we've been doing, keep reinforcing the importance of doing the simple things that we've been doing to protect ourselves and protect others for the last few months. Head into the darkest months of this winter with patience and strength and hope for the future. I think things will get better, but we have to get through the next few months first.

Hugs Over Masks anti-mask group continue to plan rallies against mandatory face-covering bylaws

In July, masks became mandatory in all public spaces for everyone in Hamilton, Ontario. The government’s goal has been to implement various regulations to slow the spread of COVID-19 while safely reopening businesses. People who refuse to adhere to the bylaw could be fined up to $500. Today, masks are still required as the pandemic continues.

Mandatory face-covering rules were not happily accepted by everyone. Councillor of Ward 14 Terry Whitehead argued that there are studies showing masks are not that effective. Whitehead also argued that public health experts' recommendations are not always right.

Ward 11 Councillor Brenda Johnson said she received letters from those against the bylaw, stating that they would not vote for her in 2022 should she support the bylaw.

“In response, I’ve said I hope they’re healthy enough in 2022 to cast that vote,” Johnson said.

“In response, I’ve said I hope they’re healthy enough in 2022 to cast that vote,” Johnson said.

Anti-masks activists also grouped together to protest against the regulations, arguing that they should have the right to not wear a mask.

One anti-mask group, known as Hugs Over Masks, shared details of their rallies on social media. Most recently, news of upcoming rallies has been shared to popular pages visited by McMaster University students, sparking anger and fear amongst students.

One of the rally posts stated that the group planned to target an intersection frequented by McMaster students. The intersection between Main Street West and Emerson Street is right across from the university and is also a popular bus stop.

Not long after, a second post surfaced with a rally from Hugs Over Masks planned for Nov. 8 at Hamilton City Hall.

Although the main concerns of protesters have been mandatory masks, there has also been a mix of concerns over correlations to mandatory vaccinations.

In July, CBC News reported that Hugs Over Masks directly partnered with Vaccine Choice Canada, one of Canada’s anti-vaccination organizations.

There have been many similarities in both groups’ messages, including the idea of freedom and personal choice. For anti-maskers, they argue that they should have the freedom to choose whether they want to wear a mask. Anti-vaxxers argue that they have the right to choose whether or not their children receive vaccinations.

Writing for CNN News, Edith Bracho-Sanchez of Columbia University Irving Medical Centre points out the similarities between the two groups and how their actions are neglecting the health of others in the community.

“Both have taken hold against the backdrop of a cultural moment that emphasizes the individual above the community, self-interest above the common good. It is no coincidence then, that pleas to wear a mask to show respect and protect others or to vaccinate to create what's commonly known as herd immunity, have seemed to fall on deaf ears [sic],” Brancho-Sanchez wrote.

“Both have taken hold against the backdrop of a cultural moment that emphasizes the individual above the community, self-interest above the common good"

Brancho-Sanchez also added that both movements misrepresent science and attack health experts, discrediting experts of the knowledge that they share.

During the council meeting in which the bylaw was passed in Hamilton, Mayor Fred Eisenberger reminded the council that the community should follow the guidance of public health services.

“This is not a constitutional issue. This is absolutely a public health issue,” Eisenberger said.

Photo C/O Silhouette Photo Archives

This article will be updated throughout the year as McMaster University continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spring and Summer

After classes were cancelled for the remainder of the winter term in March, many students scrambled to adjust to the online completion of the courses they were midway through completing.

While this was a bumpy transition given the unexpected turn of events, some students thought many instructors did a good job adjusting to the new remote format and the new technologies that came with the move. With new software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to replace classes and office hours, professors had to figure out ways to continue delivering their courses under these new conditions.

“Even though it was a bit tricky, it's actually a pretty good platform for having virtual classes or even online classes. And since class sizes are really small right now...the environment is pretty good,” said Reza Khorvash, an honours life sciences student going into his fourth year.

“There's still some uncertainties about, well, some tricky parts of using it.”

Taking two spring courses online, Khorvash acknowledged that the class experience would have been different if instructional content didn’t have to be given remotely. Overall, he was satisfied with how it was all handled.

“It's actually pretty good that they made this adjustment [of shifting classes from in-person to online] in a very short period of time from like March to May. . . I think they have done a pretty good job”, Khorvash said.

So far, it has been announced that this form of online instruction will continue through the fall with classes for the entire semester taking place online and few students having access to campus. Only some students, including those who need to take “a limited number of health care professional courses”, will be required to be occasionally present on campus for their coursework if absolutely necessary.

Other Universities

McMaster joined many universities across Canada that shared similar plans for the fall semester, consisting of predominantly online classes. Some institutions are discussing different ways of offering various options that allow for a blended format, such as smaller in-person learning experiences to support online components.

While the move to online courses is not ideal for any program, this is especially a concern for programs that require access to special equipment or resources — among other associated concerns with online learning. How a blended system of courses could be implemented while adhering to provincial social distancing and health guidelines remains to be seen.

Many universities are planning on some sort of gradual return to campus that falls in line with the provincial government’s COVID guidelines.

Buildings and Access to Campus

As much of McMaster’s staff is encouraged to work from home, many of the buildings remain inaccessible. However, since their initial closing, McMaster has gradually allowed researchers access to on-campus labs, if required, with current plans to allow more access for other members of the McMaster community such as faculty. As of June 12, McMaster has begun allowing faculty to return in phases.

As of July 14, McMaster will also require face coverings to be worn in “all indoor public spaces”, including elevators, classrooms, washrooms and other common areas. They also have disposable masks available on weekdays at the COMPASS desk in the Student Centre and the lobby of John Hodgins Engineering Building.

Tuition and Fees

Despite the move online, McMaster has not lowered tuition costs for the Fall semester. While there are concerns about the tuition costs remaining the same, the university contends that the associated expenses of online learning — staff wages, technology, academic advising, etc. — will keep the cost for the university the same. Other supplementary fees may be dropped if a service’s availability will be affected by these changes, according to McMaster.

While McMaster is making efforts to allocate tuition to other online avenues, the news of unchanged tuition costs in the face of a drastically different term has not been well-received by many students, as evidenced by reactions on social media.

https://www.facebook.com/spottedat.mac/posts/1981807478621913

Eesha Rehman, an incoming first-year life sciences student, was unsure about McMaster’s explanation of the situation.

“I did think it was a little bit strange just because, you know...when you first you look at what tuition actually go towards — we don't have access to the campus or the library or any of these sorts of things, and we don't, at least for science students, most of us don't get to go on campus and do our labs and all that kind of thing,” said Rehman. “However, I do know that money gets redirected to creating the online experience itself. So I think there's a little bit of clarity to be had with how the university speaks to you know, 'Oh, this is where the money is going, where we're building this online thing' and it makes more sense that, you know, our money is going into that rather than just it being something like a Zoom call for a lecture.”

Incoming first-year students will definitely have a tough adjustment to a new academic environment, as many had to experience their last high school semester in online learning environments they had to adjust to suddenly. In addition to concerns over this adjustment and the obstacles that come with online learning (staying disciplined, engaging with the class, etc.), this group of first-year students’ introduction to university will be one that is unlike any traditional university experience many pictured when they applied.

”I mean it was sort of [like] being stuck between a rock and a hard place where we were missing out on these big high school things that usually happen [over] the final months of senior year: you have prom, you have convocation…. We missed out on that, unfortunately, and we're missing out on a lot of, like, the big things about first-year,” said Rehman. “People talk about welcome week and all these sort of fun experiences where you get to meet the other people in your program and in the school, and as first-year students get to explore the campus. So while I'm missing out, I think that, you know, it is what it is and it is something that's unavoidable.”

While it will definitely not be the same as previous years, McMaster plans on holding their Welcome Week orientation virtually, with other resources planned to help support new students in their acclimating to university academic life. The university has also created the Archway program that groups approximately 35 first-year students with an upper-year mentor. The goal of this program is to foster a sense community between the first-years, similar to what they likely would have gotten in-person.

While it will definitely not be the same as previous years, McMaster plans on holding their Welcome Week orientation virtually, with other resources planned to help support new students in their acclimating to university academic life. The university has also created the Archway program that groups approximately 35 first-year students with an upper-year mentor. The goal of this program is to foster a sense community between the first-years, similar to what they likely would have gotten in-person.

“I think that McMaster has done a pretty good job of sort of making the best of a bad situation with creating Archway and helping students to be like, 'hey, just because you're stuck at home doesn't mean you have to miss out and it doesn't mean that you're not going to be part of university life',” Rehman added. “That being said, I think the biggest concern for me and a lot of my friends and other students is the social aspect of things where you don't get to meet people in the same way. In some ways it is harder to take initiative to, you know, press the DM button and be like, 'hi, I noticed you're in the same program or you're another first-year student, do you want to get to know each other? Do you want to be friends?'”

In a video posted on the MSU’s social media accounts, Vice-President (Finance) Jessica Anderson provided an update on how the McMaster Students Union is in talks on how to reduce student costs for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year.

Anderson stated that the MSU operating fee, which is used to fund clubs, services, governance and advocacy of the MSU, has been cut by 10%. She also said that due to COVID-19 and the Hamilton Street Railway temporarily pausing fare collection, students will be reimbursed for the months of April to June 2020. The bus pass will also be put on hold for the Fall 2020 term; however, a price was not stated for how much this fee would be for the winter.

While bus passes will be cancelled for the fall, Anderson said that the MSU is advocating for heavily discounted student fares for the time being. As of current, transportation passes are deemed mandatory fees by the provincial government for students to pay into as a part of the Student Choice Initiative.

SCI was implemented at the start of the 2019-2020 academic term allowing students to opt-out of fees deemed non-essential by the Provincial government; however, this recieved backlash by students who called for the initiative to be removed. 

In November 2019, the Divisional Court of Ontario struck down SCI. At current, there is no word as to how the ramifications of this decision will play out on the upcoming academic term and if SCI will be in effect or not.

“In addition to the reduction of the MSU fee, we have asked the university to reduce any fee for services that are unavailable to students in the fall semester”, said Anderson.

All incoming first-year students are required to pay a mandatory fee that is used to fund welcome week activities; however, as this has been moved online, this fee will be cut by 19%.

Anderson is confident that each full-time undergraduate student will save over $110 in the fall term, although if the Student Choice Initiative still stands for the upcoming academic year, this number could be more depending on what students choose to opt-in to.

Extracurriculars

Extracurricular activities will also have to adjust along with academics, finding new ways to not only operate, but to attract incoming students and students still looking to get involved or expand their social circles — an even more challenging prospect due to health concerns and social distancing guidelines.

“We're kind of like planning to have some sort of information and maybe online events, because we have to help new students to get involved in clubs. I think they're really important for students,” said Khorvash, who is president of the McMaster MCAT Prep Club.

Absolute Pitch, a show choir at McMaster that focuses on being a space for people who love to perform music, rehearses weekly throughout the year, where their executive team teaches its cast choreography and vocal routines in preparation for a final show. Due to COVID-19, the club’s final showcase performance in March 2020 was cancelled due to social distancing regulations.

Currently, the club is trying to figure out how to address the pandemic, but still maintain a routine similar to what would have been in person. President Areeba Sharafuddin noted that it is difficult to rehearse choreography and vocals via a virtual platform such as Zoom, due to lag.

“Choral music is not ideally rehearsed through Zoom calls, so the Productions team, specifically our Vocal Directors, are trying hard to come up with alternative and more independent rehearsal techniques for the wide variety of musical skill levels in our cast. None of them are ideal, but given the unprecedented circumstances, we’ve all had to adjust accordingly,” said Sharafuddin.

The volume 91 Managing Editor of the Silhouette, Andrew Mrozowski, is also the co-Editor-in-Chief of the McMaster Undergraduate Journal of Law and Politics. While he does not anticipate any problems on the production side due to the seamless integration of posting a journal online through a platform such as Issuu, there have been some problems with engaging students to apply to the executive team.

“I think it’s really hit or miss with a lot of clubs and their online community engagement. Especially now more than ever when we don’t have ways to engage students face-to-face, if you don’t have a large following, how can you showcase what your club does? We’ve been lucky enough to have other clubs and student associations share things with their following, but I fear that this will be an ongoing issue and likely something that will have to be addressed at the MSU level given the access to resources that we simply do not have,” said Mrozowski.

MSU ClubsFest usually takes place at the start of the school year in Burke Science Building Field on campus. Currently, the MSU has advised club presidents that this will take place as a virtual social media campaign that will extend throughout the month of September. While this will bring awareness to the approximately 350 clubs on campus, there are many concerns that have yet to be addressed.

“Much of our ‘recruitment’ of new members relies on in-person interactions during ClubsFest, where we are able to build one-on-one connections with students to get them excited about the club and auditions . . . [the social media campaign] makes it difficult for us to have those one-on-one conversations with interested students because there is less room to relay all the important and/or specific information(s) about the club,” said Sharafuddin.

Sports at Mac will have to undergo a massive adjustment as U Sports, Canada’s governing body for university sports, officially cancelled all of their championships for Fall sports. Ontario University Athletics subsequently cancelled “all OUA-sanctioned sport programming and championships” until Dec. 31, 2020. That puts many athletic teams and their players in limbo, especially for teams that begin their season in the fall but conclude in the winter. Other sports not under the OUA’s purview, such as cheerleading, are currently assessing their plans for the year ahead.

Despite the many challenges ahead for both new and returning university students, and the traditional university experience likely looking drastically different, enrollment numbers do not seem to be affected by the pandemic. With a large number of students still expected to look to their institutions for answers, there is still a lot of uncertainty as we rapidly approach a new school year.

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