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Rising Concerns about UBC’s COVID Reopening Plans

Faculty members want vaccination requirement, mandatory masking and other measures.

Moira Wyton 6 Aug

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Updated: On Aug. 9, the UBC Faculty Association joined the call for more stringent pandemic measures when classes return next month.

Vaccines should be mandatory for all students and staff and masking required indoors, the association said in a letter to the university administration.

The recent rise in cases, driven by eased public health restrictions and the more virulent Delta variant, requires a "robustly precautionary approach,” the association says.

"We therefore call upon UBC to adopt an indoor mask mandate in all its spaces and a vaccine mandate for all its employees and students (subject to the normal legal exemptions) in advance of the September reopening," reads the letter from faculty association president Alan Richardson.

More than 100 faculty at the University of British Columbia have joined students and staff in calling for more stringent pandemic measures when classes reopen next month.

And 40 faculty members say the university should mandate vaccines for those who wish to be on-campus, a move one expert says would be legal.

“Everyone desires and deserves a safe campus: students, faculty and staff,” reads the open letter posted to professor Joanna McGrenere’s blog, co-written with professor Karen Bakker.

“UBC needs to show greater leadership on this issue; if mandatory vaccination is not possible for legal reasons, then it should commit to mandatory masking, physical distancing and industry-leading ventilation standards for all indoor spaces.”

Currently UBC plans to recommend, not require, masks in indoor spaces and will not mandate or make space for distancing in lecture halls. It has no minimum ventilation standards for classrooms.

The university is also not requiring vaccination to live in residence or participate in certain sports and extracurricular activities as other Canadian post-secondaries have done recently.

In the United States, hundreds of colleges and universities are requiring everyone on campus to be vaccinated, a decision American courts have upheld despite recent legal challenges.

Students, faculty and staff all say UBC’s plans don’t go far enough to protect them, particularly as the Delta variant surges in British Columbia among people who are not fully vaccinated.

The letter, signed by 129 faculty members across medicine, sciences, law and the arts, came as the university’s student society called on the university to do more than “the bare minimum” to keep those on campus safe.

In a survey of 8,000 students conducted by the Alma Mater Society, 82 per cent of respondents said they would support mandatory masks in lecture halls and nearly two-thirds were concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 in their courses.

And in a petition addressed to Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang, the unions representing teaching assistants, adjunct professors and non-tenure faculty at UBC, Simon Fraser, the University of Victoria and the University of Northern British Columbia echoed the concerns laid out by students and faculty.

UBC has said repeatedly that it is following the example laid out in the province’s July 5 guidance for return-to-campus. The return will coincide with the province’s planned movement to the fourth and final stage of its pandemic reopening plan.

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she is working closely with post-secondaries to determine the best courses of action for a safe return to campus.

“These are ongoing discussions and we have the basics in place to make sure we can have in-person learning across post-secondary institutions in the fall,” Henry said.

B.C. reported 402 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the vast majority of which are of the Delta variant in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people.

Experts say the province’s fourth and most-avoidable wave is here and shows no signs of slowing as new vaccinations decline and public health measures are lifted.

Henry said public health officials will work with universities to provide vaccines on campus so they are “within reach” at student health clinics and for all who need them.

She did not say whether the province would support campuses mandating vaccines or masks on their own.

“We’re not denying people an education because of their immunization status,” she said, addressing concerns in the faculty’s letter that many international students may not be able to access vaccines before they arrive due to the global vaccine divide between rich and poor countries.

But Margot Young, a professor at the Allard School of Law at UBC who signed the call for a vaccine mandate, says Henry’s answer “erases the nuance from the conversation.”

Henry’s reply is “easily counter-balanced by the fact we don’t want to deny people employment or engagement as a student because they are vulnerable and can’t be around unvaccinated people,” Young said in an interview.

Case law from Canada has upheld public health measures during the pandemic that limit some individual liberties to protect the larger public good, Young said. Courts around the world have found these measures, including mandatory vaccines, are reasonable and proportional to the risks posed by COVID-19.

That’s supported by guidance from B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, which says employers, landlords and service providers can implement vaccination status policies when there is no other way to ensure safety.

“No one’s safety should be put at risk because of others’ personal choices not to receive a vaccine,” the guidance notes. “Just as importantly, no one should experience harassment or unjustifiable discrimination when there are effective alternatives to vaccination status policies.”

It’s also an employment issue for many faculty who are vulnerable themselves or have high-risk people in their household and who need a safe working environment in classrooms where space makes distancing impossible, Young said. She visits and helps support her 87-year-old mother, and says crowded teaching conditions and unvaccinated people shouldn’t force her to distance from her mother.

UBC seems to be “incipiently cautious in terms of going out and doing anything on their own initiatives rather than what public health officials are saying,” Young said.

Mandating vaccines would be complex logistically and ethically, but it’s a conversation the university needs to have transparently with faculty, staff and students, Young said.

“Right now, there isn’t the confidence that is happening at UBC.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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