Tension between staff, university officials over COVID-19 protocols on UPEI's campus

Signs remain up at UPEI to remind those on campus to keep physically distant. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC - image credit)
Signs remain up at UPEI to remind those on campus to keep physically distant. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC - image credit)

The leaders of all four of UPEI's campus unions say members have been left in the dark when it comes to the school's COVID-19 operational plan, putting staff and students at risk.

University officials, on the other hand, maintain there has been clear communication for several months.

"We are thrilled to be back. We want our students to be in our classrooms," said Margot Rejskind, the vice-president of the UPEI Faculty Association.

"But we also want to be safe. We want everyone to be safe."

Sheehan Desjardins/CBC
Sheehan Desjardins/CBC

Over the summer, Bernardine Hall on campus was used as a central isolation location for students from UPEI and Holland College.

"Unfortunately, it seems as though our colleagues in maintenance and custodial staff were not made aware of that," said Rejskind.

The concerns were initially raised after staff working in the building realized they were coming into direct contact with people who were supposed to be self-isolating.

'I was disappointed'

Jim Sponagle with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers says there have been a couple of concerning incidents. He said the latest happened last week when a maintenance worker helped someone carry their luggage — completely unaware that person was required to be self-isolating.

"I was disappointed that there were folks that came into contact and potential exposure to COVID-19, and hopefully we get this straight in the future," said Sponagle.

Sheehan Desjardins/CBC
Sheehan Desjardins/CBC

The university said it doesn't understand how staff could have been confused.

"My understanding to that is there was the protocols just as there has been last year because we were isolating students last year as well," said Jackie Podger, vice-president administration and finance with UPEI.

"So there was signage throughout the building that people were isolating."

Looking for clarity

But union leaders say it's not enough.

Sponagle is calling for a policy that ensures those who are required to isolate do so without interacting with others.

"As I understand, January there may be some more isolations taking place, and I hope by that time we have a clear understanding of how to deal with quarantine individuals," he said.

Sheehan Desjardins/CBC
Sheehan Desjardins/CBC

The faculty association also raised concerns about the school's latest operational plan, posted last Friday.

Rejskind said as students return to the classroom, members have received no guidance on how to implement or enforce those protocols.

"Our working conditions are students learning conditions, and in the case of the residences, in fact, our working conditions are students living conditions," Rejskind said.

"This isn't just a worker issue. This is something that affects everyone on campus and if something were to go wrong it could affect the whole island so this is really important to get right."

'Probably the safest place on P.E.I.'

Podger said safety is a top priority for UPEI and it will continue to make sure everyone on campus is on the same page.

Sheehan Desjardins/CBC
Sheehan Desjardins/CBC

"We are probably the safest place to be on P.E.I., maybe even the world, because we have instituted protocols that are even over and above what CPHO [the Chief Public Health Office] has put in place, so we feel that we are doing our upmost with regards to this," Podger said.

Rejskind said the leaders of the four unions representing workers on campus asked for a meeting with the university's administration over the long weekend, but were declined.

University officials said they also called an emergency meeting but the unions weren't able to attend at that time.

The two sides are looking to reschedule that meeting and the university said if anyone has concerns in the meantime, the door is always open.

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