Post-secondary unions call for safer return to campus in January

Uncertainty from changing restrictions creates avoidable burdens for faculty and students

Two students in focus in a classroom with other students blurred in the background
In a joint statement, post-secondary unions demand greater government leadership and stricter health guidelines for classes. Carlynn Alarid / Unsplash

By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

As COVID-19 and the Omicron variant are increasing cases in BC to an all-time high, post-secondary unions are calling for universities and the BC government to rethink their return to campus. Their joint statement was released on December 22, 2021. 

The statement said, “We call on institutional leaders to take the lead in establishing health and safety rules in the best interests of their campus communities.”

BCIT Faculty and Staff Association, the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC (CUFA), and Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC have all signed onto the statement. 

The unions are asking for measures including delaying in-person classes for at least one month, providing personal protective equipment, and reducing class sizes for in-person courses.

In an email interview with The Peak, CUFA executive director Annabree Fairweather said, “The fall term was chaotic and stressful for faculty, staff, and students [ . . . ] However, the semester started with a series of fast-paced announcements that left institutions in an awkward space trying to implement complex policy without a full understanding of provincial requirements.”

They are calling for “bold governance decisions” to create less uncertainty for the community as post-secondary institutions navigate the pandemic in hopes of reducing economic burden and impacts on “staff and students’ mental health and well-being.”

Fairweather noted while universities “in many ways [made] campuses safer for faculty, staff, and students by introducing vaccine disclosures and rapid testing,” without strong leadership from the government, many of these “measures fell short of their promise” this past fall.

She added, “Self-disclosures for vaccination status were weakly enforced and introduced non-confidence issues in the reported statistics for vaccination rates on campuses. Rapid testing was only available in limited circumstances, for those who were unvaccinated and asymptomatic, and not broadly accessible enough to catch COVID-19 cases on campus.”  

President Joy Johnson announced on December 23, 2021 SFU would be delaying in-person courses until January 24, 2022. UVIC and UBC have also moved back to delivering courses online for January. 

Fairweather “commends SFU administrators for making this decision as early as they did.”

She noted an equally important goal, along with greater support from leadership, was that decisions be made with accessibility and equity at the forefront. “Campuses include folks who face significant health and economic barriers that require accommodation and support. The chaotic and stressful fall term has had a direct impact on mental health and well-being of faculty, staff, and students.”

On December 21, 2021, Dr. Bonnie Henry sent a letter to post-secondary presidents regarding the return to campus in the spring. She wrote, “a move to online instruction is not an effective means of reducing COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff, or in the wider community.”

Henry “strongly recommends continuation of on-campus instruction for post-secondary institutions in January 2022.”

Fairweather said, “Collective experience from the past four months has put into perspective the reality that faculty, staff, and students are at the front lines of the pandemic.” 

While universities have been supporting the community, post-secondary unions feel it is “important for a provincial-level strategy from the government.”

SFU’s current return plan includes safety training for faculty and staff, relaxed rules around students’ need for doctor’s notes, and vaccine declarations with mandatory rapid testing for those who are not vaccinated. SFU notes they “are ready to shift measures quickly in response to changes in public health measures to protect the community.”

For the latest updates on the return to campus, visit SFU’s website.

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