Flu on campus: Universities make some allowances for students who fall sick

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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TORONTO - Guillaume Blais was due to write a midterm the day he started showing symptoms of the H1N1 virus.
A day later, when the University of Guelph student was scheduled to write another test, he was laid low with a fever, sore body and crushing fatigue.
The ensuing week saw Blais confined to his home and resigning himself to a term marred by additional assignments or more heavily weighted finals that would compensate for the three midterms he missed.
But the university soon allayed his fears by allowing Blais - as well as dozens of other sick students - to write their tests once they had recovered.
"I actually had one prof who sat down with me and said 'what works for you? Let's make it work,"' Blais said in a telephone interview. "... It showed that the professors really recognized that there was a significant amount of people that were sick and they had to make arrangements."
Blais' experience is being replicated on campuses across the country. Universities say parents and pupils alike need not fear that their hard-earned tuition dollars will go to waste if swine flu strikes. Officials say they're making every effort to remain flexible in the face of an ever-changing pandemic situation and are striving to ensure the academic experience is not derailed by the virus.
Schools that are already dealing with a wave of H1N1 on campus have adapted their academic policies and adjusted exam periods to accommodate those students laid low by the virulent flu, and those who have dodged the bullet so far are prepared to make the same concessions if conditions change.
McGill University's extensive pandemic preparations enabled the Montreal school to adapt quickly as the virus asserted its presence on campus, said Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, director of student health services.
Adjustments to academic policies were particularly effective in relieving demand on campus medical staff and alleviating student anxiety, he said.
Medical notes - which were once mandatory for students who contracted severe flu symptoms - were no longer compulsory as of mid-October, Tellier said, echoing a similar policy enacted at Guelph.
Those who do fall ill have only to report their condition online and devote their time to recovering.
"If people are given time off, it may impact on their assignments, it may impact on exams, and so special arrangements have been made for all these things," Tellier said in a phone interview.
Professors have been asked to be lenient when allowing people to postpone term papers or defer mid-term tests, and the school has scheduled a special final exam period at the beginning of January for those who are not able to write at the end of the month, he added.
Brenda Whiteside, associate vice-president of student affairs at Guelph, said the university's pandemic plan covered nearly all aspects of campus life except for the unexpected strain the vaccination effort put on the school's medical staff.
The decision to offer H1N1 flu shots on campus further exacerbated the strain on personnel who were already overtaxed by the wave of sick students, she said, adding that the move was a positive one that often alleviated concern from both students and their parents.
Other campus efforts have gone towards the protection of healthy students, some of which have met with surprising resistance, she said.
"One of the messages we got out is `if you're sick, stay home,' and that's really hard to convince people to do," Whiteside said, adding that roughly 10 per cent of the campus population has likely been infected in recent weeks.
Long-established online systems that allow professors to post lecture notes and assignments have made it easier to cope with the inevitable class cancellations and absences, she said.
Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., has so far emerged relatively unscathed from the second wave of swine flu. Spokeswoman Sherri Turner attributes the university's run of good luck in part to beefed-up hygiene protocols and an extensive effort to get information out to the student body.
"In high-touch areas, there's extra cleaning happening. We also have almost 300 hand sanitizers in buildings throughout campus. We've kind of done a lot of things in terms of education to prevent the spread of the illness."
Those educational efforts included the launch of an informational website where parents and students can go to obtain credible information about the virus, Turner said. Acadia's efforts have been a success so far, she said, adding that no classes have been cancelled yet.
Precautions are in place to keep the virus contained in campus residences if an outbreak does take place, Turner said. Sick students wary of venturing out for their meals can request room service - a luxury students at both Guelph and McGill can also enjoy.
McGill has also launched information campaigns, going so far as to open a phone line where students can have their flu-related queries answered by a trained nurse within an hour.
Tellier has also made himself available for questions through a link on the McGill health services website.
Managing potential panic by disseminating credible information about swine flu has been key to mitigating the impact of the virus, he said.
"The students are becoming less anxious, which makes things a little bit less difficult."

Organizations: McGill University, University of Guelph, Montreal school

Geographic location: TORONTO, Guelph

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