Teaching Support Staff Union and faculty respond to SFU health guidelines

There are concerns for new COVID-19 restrictions on campus

Staircases leading up to Convocation Mall from the lower bus loop

By: Nancy La, News Editor

On August 24, the BC Provincial Health Office (PHO) issued an updated COVID-19 guideline for post-secondary institutions. The revised guidelines include a mask mandate for return to class, but students will not be required to be vaccinated to attend in-person classes. 

The Peak spoke to Katie Gravestock, chief steward of the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) and Dr. Scott Lear, a professor in the faculty of health sciences, about their thoughts on the new guidelines. 

In early August, the TSSU endorsed an open letter to the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training, calling for stronger back-to-school guidelines for post-secondary institutions. The letter had over 800 signatures of support. It did not receive a response from the Ministry or school administration.

“However, after months of denial, the government did a complete 180 and instituted both mandatory masks for all indoor settings and proof of vaccination on campuses,” said Gravestock in an email interview. 

While Dr. Bonnie Henry won’t admit it, I think this was because our demands gained a lot of support from other unions, student groups, faculty, community members, and media who recognize the importance of the precautionary principle.” 

However, both Gravestock and Dr. Lear expressed concerns despite the updated guidelines. 

“The updated guidelines do not go far enough,” wrote Gravestock. She emphasized the importance of ventilation on campus to prevent spread of COVID-19. 

“I want to reiterate my serious concerns around ventilation. SFU has been working on a ventilation audit over the summer but this process has been slow and inadequate,” wrote Gravestock. 

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommendations are the standards being implemented in schools in BC. SFU keeps a list of rooms that meet ASHRAE standards on its website. As of September 9, there are still rooms in the process of assessment for ASHRAE standards on campus. An email update from vice-president, academic and provost Catherine Dauvergne clarified that “classrooms that were unable to meet ASHRAE standards have been pulled from scheduling.”

In a phone interview with The Peak, Dr. Lear discussed his concerns for the back-to-campus plan and potential steps SFU could take to mitigate those concerns. 

“I worry that with the self-declaration there will be people who are unvaccinated who won’t declare that and so then they won’t get rapid testing done and if that’s the case, and if it’s a sizable number, it will actually create a false sense of security on campus,” Dr. Lear said. The self-declaration of vaccination for staff, faculty, and students was announced by president Joy Johnson on August 26. 

“I would like to see [ . . . ] our leadership being more vocal in protecting the SFU community, from the students to the staff to the instructors and faculty. [I] haven’t seen our president, or other senior leadership actually advocating for that in the public,” said Dr. Lear. “SFU should be fighting for more autonomy in setting their own rules.”

According to Dr. Lear, postsecondary institutions are not allowed to set guidelines beyond that of the provincial health office. 

“The province has basically handcuffed the post-secondary institutions from mandating their own public health measures,” Dr. Lear said. 

When asked about why vaccines are mandatory for faculty and staff and not for students for in-person classes, Dr. Lear suggested it could be due to how SFU has authority over the staff they hire, and drew a metaphor of SFU being a bank and faculty being its employees. 

“The students may be more similar to customers of the bank,” Dr. Lear explained, pointing to the lack of authority SFU has over the student body.

Dr. Lear also raised concerns over Dr. Bonnie Henry’s comment over not wanting the vaccines to be a barrier to access education

“I have a problem with that type of comment because it comes across that this is an equity issue [ . . . ] I would see the equity argument if the vaccine has been distributed inequitably [ . . . ] There have been pop-up clinics already started at SFU so it’s not that it’s hard to get the vaccine. So that, to me, isn’t a strong argument why students shouldn’t be vaccinated,” Dr. Lear said. 

He also pointed out various barriers that he thinks prevent students from accessing school in the fall.

“There’s cost, there’s actual physical accessibility [ . . . ] because the main model is in-person, so that excludes a lot of people [ . . . ] those are what I would say are more problematic equitable barriers than having a vaccination.”

When asked about how SFU can improve its return plan, Dr. Lear suggested flexibility in online options for classes is something to consider.

“In the next few weeks, we’re going to see [ . . . ] massive amounts of people getting together. We can probably expect cases to rise even further as a result of that. So it would be great if universities could have that flexibility, if SFU wasn’t mandating that course instructions have to be on-campus and [ . . . ] offering online options where appropriate,” Dr. Lear said. 

Students who wish to consult SFU’s return to campus plan can do so at SFU’s website, along with the provincial restrictions website.