Some University of Guelph faculty 'disappointed and terrified' of the university’s back-to-school plan

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Some faculty members in the University of Guelph’s integrative biology department are “disappointed and terrified” with what they say is a disastrous back-to-school plan, says Alex Smith, a professor in that department.

The university is currently requiring that 60 per cent of classes be conducted in-person, with a maximum limit of 250 students per class, and on Monday (Aug. 23) announced mandatory proof of vaccination for all students, on-campus staff, faculty and personnel.

Previously, on Aug. 12, the university announced a mandatory vaccination policy that did not require proof of vaccination, and integrative biology professor Shoshanah Jacobs says that’s a problem.

“A mandate requires enforcement and verification,” says Jacobs. “What the university announced is a campaign to promote vaccination, and while that’s great, it’s not a mandate that will protect community members on and off campus or the surrounding city.”

University of Guelph spokesperson Deirdre Healey said in an email to Cambridge Times that, “prior to announcing the vaccination mandate, the university has been actively promoting vaccines to faculty, staff and students through regular communications.”

“We are requiring faculty, staff and students to provide proof of vaccination beginning Sept. 7 if they intend to access UofG buildings at both the Guelph and Ridgetown campuses and all university-managed facilities," said Healey. "Those over the age of 12 who are not vaccinated, including those granted exemptions, must receive a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 72 hours before accessing our indoor spaces."

But Smith says that even with the change in the university’s vaccination policy, the vaccination mandate is faulty as it gives students a deadline of Oct. 15 to receive their second doses, with only first doses being required by Sept. 7. As a result, a contingent of students will not be fully vaccinated when they arrive on campus, and this could leave room for an outbreak in the first six weeks of school, says Smith.

“The leadership group at this university has already created an environment where COVID-19 can be transferred,” said Smith.

Social distancing is also posed to be a challenge in a multitude of ways. With the 250-person-limit, most of the classrooms at University of Guelph are not outfitted for social distancing such a large amount of people, said Jacobs.

“So as it currently stands, we have one large classroom where if there was a physical distancing of two meters, what we could have in that classroom would be 60 students,” said Jacobs. “And there's only one of those classrooms. Everything else is actually fewer students. So 250 means that these rooms will not be able to support physical distance.”

In an email to Cambridge Times, Healey noted that “the Ministry of Colleges and Universities has indicated that physical distancing will not be required in learning spaces in the fall.” However, Healey also noted that the university invested in ventilation in classrooms. “Each classroom will have ventilation measures in place that provide for the equivalent of six outdoor air exchanges per hour--a measure equal to the standard in place for medical examination rooms,” said Healey.

University of Guelph epidemiologist Amy Greer says that her biggest frustration is that the university is unwilling to modify an early plan that no longer fits today’s context. “The (university’s) plan might have been fine if we still had the Alpha variant, but the unwillingness to reconsider the plan in the context of new information is the challenge that we have right now.”

Some faculty and some students are demanding that all classes be conducted remotely. An open letter posted on Twitter urging the shifting of all courses to remote classes until every community member is fully vaccinated and logistics for physical distancing has been transparently organized, has amassed 468 faculty, student and parent signatures. The university employs 789 faculty members.

“The failure of the leadership of the university has made it such that the best possible plan right now would be to announce that all courses will be remote until such time when the university can confirm that all members of our community are fully vaccinated,” said Jacobs.

Smith says ideally it would be nice for students to have the option of whether they participate in online learning or not, but such a plan would have required early preparation back in the spring.

“Students that are arriving back to campus imagine that they're arriving in a safe environment,” said Smith. “They are searching for what they've been used to over the past 18 months, where masks are normal and distance is normally expected and enforced, and they are not going to find that near the university right now.”

Genelle Levy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times

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