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B.C. university groups petition for masking, vaccination mandate

Staff and students sign on as concerns escalate with the surge of the Delta variant
Current provincial return to campus guidelines for the University of Victoria and other post-secondary institutions in B.C. call for a return to ‘most pre-pandemic practises.’ (Black Press Media file photo)

A collaboration between the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia has resulted in a petition with more than 2,000 signatures in under a week, calling for the government of B.C. to create stronger campus COVID-19 mandates.

Faculty, staff and students from post-secondary schools across B.C. are asking Premier John Horgan, Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister of Health Adrian Dix to implement a vaccination and masking mandate across their campuses. Universities in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario – including Queens University and the University of Toronto – recently put identical mandates in place but have the autonomy necessary from their provincial governments.

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“With the return to campus being just three weeks away, we need our institutions of higher learning to follow the science and implement vaccine and masking requirements on campus,” said Lynne Marks, president of the University of Victoria Faculty Association.

The province’s current return to campus guidelines encourage what UVic’s Faculty Association considers a “return to most pre-pandemic practises.” After mandatory daily self-health checks, the guidelines only recommend masks for students or staff and makes no mention of vaccines beyond informing of their availability for everyone aged 12 and older. COVID-19 safety plans are no longer required.

“Faculty have been concerned with this approach for months, but that concern has escalated with the Delta variant surging, posing a risk in crowded post-secondary spaces to faculty, staff, students and their families,” reads the faculty association’s release.

Marks said the association agrees that a return to in-person instruction is vital for the success and mental health of post-secondary students. “But the government may be assuming that if case counts get too high in the fall, post-secondary institutions can just return to online teaching,” he said.

“That would demonstrate a failure of government and create a totally preventable situation, causing chaos, distress and overwork for students and instructors alike … mandatory masking and vaccinations (with rapid testing for those with vaccination exemptions) could prevent this.”

Students at UBC had similar concerns. According to Eshana Bhangu, vice-president of the Alma Mater Society, said that a survey of nearly 8,000 students found that less than half were confident in the university’s return to campus plans. A strong majority – 82 per cent – of those planning to live in residence said that they would like to see a mandatory vaccination policy for those living on campus. Sixty per cent were concerned about COVID being spread in classrooms and lecture halls.

In a blog post published on Friday, UBC president Santa Ono said that the university had heard students’ concerns and was engaging with the provincial government.

“I have shared with the provincial government that I am supportive of mandatory indoor masking and vaccination,” Ono said, noting he believe both mandates would be “critical” to ensure confidence in safety at the university.

“Just as the Provincial Health Officer has mandated vaccination for all working in long term care facilities, I think we should do the same, at least in high-density residences and high contact circumstances such as Varsity athletics and theatre/music, in light of the surge in cases driven by the delta variant of SARS-CoV2.”

However, UBC has not moved to require vaccination staff, faculty or student on campuses, except for where face coverings are required by public health order in the Central Okanagan.

And neither have a series of post-secondary institutions in B.C.

Simon Fraser University, Thompson Rivers University, BCIT, Selkirk College, Vancouver Island University, the University of Northern B.C. and Kwantlen Polytechnic University have all said they will not require vaccinations.

The majority of these post=secondary institutions cited the province’s return-to-campus guidelines which state that the “COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory.”

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