Student society raises lack of confidence in UBC's return-to-campus plans

·3 min read
Students on campus at the University of British Columbia on Nov. 20, 2019.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Students on campus at the University of British Columbia on Nov. 20, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The University of British Columbia is planning on doing the "bare minimum" to keep students safe from COVID-19 when in-person classes return in the fall, the school's student society says.

An open letter penned by the Alma Mater Society (AMS) to UBC executives and the board of governors says the university must consider mandating masks in lecture halls and ensuring students living in residences are vaccinated, in line with some other Canadian universities.

It follows an AMS "return to campus" survey that found 82 per cent would be in favour of mandatory masks in lecture halls, while more than 60 per cent expressed concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 in classrooms and lecture halls. The AMS says the survey drew nearly 8,000 respondents and was conducted July 6-15.

UBC's return-to-campus plan, in accordance with university-specific public health orders, currently recommends masks in indoor spaces and requires students to take an online safety course.

But Eshana Bhangu, AMS vice-president, academic and university affairs, said only one-third of the students in the survey felt they were confident in UBC's plans.

"There's only one resounding message that we're hearing from students and that is [that] UBC needs to do more," Bhangu told CBC News.

"It's been disappointing to see UBC continue to fall back on its existing plans instead of engaging seriously with the concerns of its students, staff and faculty."

The AMS recently passed a motion to continue the mask mandate in The Nest, the student hub owned by the society.

Ainsley Carry, UBC vice-president for students, said the university will not be changing its stance in a July 23 letter addressed to Bhangu and AMS president Cole Evans.

He says UBC is doing more than the bare minimum by following the "high standard" set by provincial health orders.

"The last year-and-a-half have shown us how important it is to follow guidance from our province's public health professionals, and this is even more crucial as we transition to the next stage of returning to campus," wrote Carry.

He adds that transmission within student residences and in the limited number of in-person courses still running has been minimal.

Carry said the university has taken considerable steps to ensure a safe return to campus. His letter notes an audit of classroom ventilation and a webinar on student safety to get feedback.

But the AMS letter highlights that the university has previously gone beyond public health recommendations rather than closely following official advice, saying that the university previously mandated masks in 2020 prior to a public health order doing so.

"It's not that they're incapable. It's a matter of whether they're willing to show leadership on this or not," Bhangu said.

In response to the AMS open letter, UBC's Faculty Association is asking for greater transparency prior to returning to campus.

The association says it has been urging the university to release more information about the risk assessments guiding its "return to normal" efforts. It says it is unaware of estimated vaccination rates, expected transmission and morbidity rates in relation to vaccination predictions, and what benefits the university has found to outweigh the risks.

"It would be unconscionable for the university to send its faculty and its students into the classroom in the fall without substantial guidance on fundamental issues such as these," wrote Faculty Association president Alan Richardson.

"We are now three weeks past the release of the provincial guidelines and it is time for UBC to provide detailed information relevant to its academic community."

UBC students are scheduled to start the academic year on Sept. 7.

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