U of A students, faculty sign open letter calling for mandatory vaccinations, masking with fall return

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Hundreds of University of Alberta students and faculty have signed an open letter calling for administration to implement a number of safety measures upon return to campus in the fall.

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The letter, addressed to university president Bill Flanagan, provost Steven Dew, and board of governors chairwoman Kate Chisholm, calls for mandatory vaccinations for all faculty, staff, and students on campus and mandatory masking in classrooms and hallways. It also calls for the university to measure and share ventilation and filtration data for all common spaces, including classroom and lecture halls, as well as implement rapid testing on campus.

“While the University of Alberta has stated that safety is the top priority for a smooth fall return, we are extremely concerned that this plan, as outlined, could fail, and that in-person teaching and other normal activities could end prematurely,” the letter states.

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“The very last thing any of us would like to see is for students, faculty, and staff to fall ill and force us to pivot back online. We also do not want our community to be the cause of additional stress on our healthcare system. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders to create a safe learning environment for all students.”

Amy Kaler is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta and one of the signatories of the letter.

“Many of us have been quite vocal about our concerns that the U of A campus is not set up to be safe in the fall, and that our administration is a sort of pulling the ostrich trick and kind of hiding their head in the sand and I don’t know why, hoping the virus just picks up and walks away or something,” Kaler said.

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Specifically on the call for ventilation, Kaler said one of the things they are asking for is an acknowledgement from the university on buildings that have poor ventilation and a priority list for when it will get fixed.

“The building that I usually teach in, the Tory building, is just a mess, like there’s cigarette smoke floating around in there from 1974, people get headaches and get sick all the time and we can’t open the windows,” she said.

However, Kaler, who teaches classes with hundreds of students, pointed out her risk will be much less than others as she will be teaching remotely when classes return. In the spring she set parameters on whether she would return to in-person instruction.

The vaccination rate in the 18 to 24 age group, the traditional undergraduate age group, had to be 85 per cent or more and daily new cases had to be 20 a day and declining for at least two weeks. Neither are at that rate, Kaler said.

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She noted other colleagues have already decided to teach remotely or are prepared to do so. Many are worried weeks into the return to campus, they will have to go online on short notice.

“Most faculty that I know are kind of mentally trying to throw together their Plan B, what happens if … due to the inaction of the provincial government and the inaction of the university administration, we’re in a position where we have to stop in-person teaching,” Kaler said. “Nobody wants that, that’s the worst outcome.”

Currently, the university plans to have 20 per cent of courses offered remotely.

Rowan Ley, president of the University of Alberta Students’ Union, said the union agrees with the general principle that more needs to be done to ensure campus is safe in the fall. For example, vaccines should be mandatory for students living in residences on campus, with health exemptions.

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“You’re talking about thousands of people living in densely packed dorm-style buildings where they share washrooms, cafeterias and kitchens,” Ley said. “It is very hard to prevent outbreaks and it is very, very hard to isolate when you’re sick.”

Implementing this ask is not a radical idea, Ley said, as a number of universities across Canada are already doing so, including the University of Toronto and University of Ottawa.

“We’re not looking to go back to April-level restrictions. We want everyone to have fun this fall. We want to return to in-person classes,” he said.

“We just want to make sure that we’re being safe and responsible, and we really do not see any reason to take unnecessary risks.”

In a statement posted online, Flanagan acknowledged the concerns and questions raised about the return to campus.

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“We are taking a phased approach to mitigate risks. We are prepared to, and will, adapt our plans as needed,” he said.

“We will continue to monitor daily case trends, hospitalization rates and the impacts of current and emerging virus variants. Maintaining a safe and healthy learning, research and working environment on our campuses remains our top priority.”

However, the university has not committed to mandatory vaccines or masking, but will strongly encourage them while noting planning is underway to bring mass vaccination clinics to campus.

Flanagan also noted an FAQ on ventilation has been set up, but did not address the call for rapid testing.

“As an institution, we will continue to monitor and follow expert public health advice in all of our planning and be responsive to any changes or emergent issues,” he said.

ajunker@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/JunkerAnna

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