B.C. university staff and students ask for more clarity around COVID-19 protocols

·4 min read
The B.C. university community is asking for more clarity from its administration and the province around rapid testing, COVID exposures and supports for clinically vulnerable students. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The B.C. university community is asking for more clarity from its administration and the province around rapid testing, COVID exposures and supports for clinically vulnerable students. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

University staff and students in B.C. are asking for more clarity around COVID-19 exposures, rapid testing and remote-learning support one month into an in-person fall term.

Currently, none of the universities in B.C. have mandated vaccines for students, faculty, or staff, and exposure notices within universities are not posted publicly by health authorities.

Those who do experience symptoms at Metro Vancouver's biggest universities — the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University — are not able to access on-campus rapid testing unless they have previously declared themselves unvaccinated or refused to disclose their vaccination status.

The lack of accessible on-campus rapid testing particularly affects disabled students, according to Hannah Sullivan Facknitz, a disabled graduate student and teaching assistant at UBC. There is a rapid testing study at UBC's Vancouver campus, but that is only open to asymptomatic people.

COVID-19 Testing Sites and proximity to major universities

Facknitz, who is immunocompromised and double-vaccinated, experienced COVID-like symptoms a day into classes. But they say they could not risk using public transit to access the nearest testing site nearly an hour away or afford to pay out of pocket for an at-home test.

"In order to keep my job and my spot in my degree program, I had to walk into a classroom and take a risk that people who receive full efficacy from the vaccine did not have to take," they said. "That's what ableism is."

As both a student and educator, Facknitz says UBC has taken a "messy" ad hoc approach to providing support to those who have to self-isolate or those who are clinically vulnerable.

While they had the support of their professors, they say it is not a universal UBC policy and educators have been left to figure out hybrid learning on their own.

"The way UBC has communicated with us has made it incredibly difficult to make informed decisions about my own health and how I go about accessing space at UBC ... I felt very much disregarded and discarded in a lot of ways."

Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC, says they have incorporated "significant flexibility" into teaching during this academic year.

"Not every course can easily be adapted, but there are a number of measures that have been implemented to support [clinically vulnerable] students," he said. "We really encourage students to explore those options for online and blended courses by reaching out to their programs directly."

Concerns around self-declaration surveys and exposure notices

Ramsey says a survey circulated among UBC community members showed over 90 per cent of students, staff, and faculty had declared themselves fully vaccinated.

The province's three biggest universities — UBC, SFU, and the University of Victoria — have all incorporated a vaccine-self-declaration survey for their communities.

Those who declare themselves unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, or who refuse to declare their vaccination status, have to submit to regular rapid tests.

But according to Izabella Laba, a mathematics professor at UBC, those who refuse to fill out UBC's survey have not been contacted in any way.

She also says the fact in-class exposures are not publicly posted has led to a lot of uncertainty among faculty members.

An unofficial tracker for UBC, similar to one set up earlier for K-12 schools, has been set up to catalogue COVID-19 exposures at the school.

"In my case, I just assume that I'm going to be exposed whenever I go to class. And I take precautions accordingly," Laba said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

A petition, signed by multiple faculty associations and unions, wants the province to start publicly listing COVID-19 exposures at universities throughout B.C.

"We have huge institutions with tens of thousands of people and no idea whether there's COVID-19 occurring in the workplace," said Chris Alemany, the petition author and a technician at Vancouver Island University.

Health authorities are responsible for posting COVID-19 exposures. A spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health says there has been no recorded in-class transmission of COVID-19 so far this year in the health region.

"In cases where all cases and close contacts can be reached and we determine there is no ongoing risk to the public, we will not issue a notification or provide details to protect a patients' privacy rights," the spokesperson said.

While the province backtracked on its initial decision to not post school exposures publicly, there is no indication that a similar policy is coming for post-secondary institutions.

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