University students, faculty and staff want B.C. to do more to prevent COVID-19 transmission in classrooms this fall

Student, staff and faculty unions from several B.C. universities have signed onto an open letter asking the provincial government to implement stronger public health measures before in-person classes resume in the fall.

The letter, which is addressed to B.C.'s Minister of Advanced Education Anne Kang, calls for the ministry to revise its return-to-campus guidelines to require improved ventilation, masks in indoor settings and physical distancing in classrooms, among other things. 

“The BC COVID-19 Return-to-Campus guidelines are not consistent with the best-available evidence and disregard the layers of protection that could prevent COVID-19 transmission in post-secondary environments," said Katie Gravestock, chief steward of the Teaching Support Staff Union at Simon Fraser University, in a news release.

"We are requesting that the Ministry publish new guidelines that correct these deficiencies so that students, teaching and support staff, and faculty have safer places of work and learning."

The TSSU initiated the letter, but several other unions endorsed its contents, including the CUPE 3338 Executive Committee at SFU, the Simon Fraser Student Society Executive Committee, the University of Victoria Faculty Association Executive Committee, the CUPE 4163 Executive Committee at UVic and the CUPE 2278 Executive Committee, which serves the University of British Columbia and the University of Northern British Columbia.

Last month, UBC's Alma Mater Society issued a similar letter calling for mandatory vaccinations and masks in classrooms. 

Asked about that letter, UBC's director of university affairs, Matthew Ramsey, told CTV News Vancouver that post-secondary institutions had been advised not to introduce their own COVID-19-related measures, and instead follow the guidance of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

On Thursday, Henry was asked about the latest letter from the unions. She told reporters at a news conference that she had seen the letter and that her office has been "working very closely" with colleges and universities on this issue.

"There are many important points that we are addressing," Henry said. "There are some that we'll need to continue to work with them on, but these are ongoing discussions."

The provincial health officer said mandatory immunization for students living on campus - which the UBC Alma Mater Society has advocated for, but the unions' letter does not directly request - is "not a simple question."

"I think what is critical, and I've said this repeatedly, is that we're not denying people an education because of their immunization status," Henry said.

"There needs to be provisions for people who cannot be immunized, even though they may be a small number of people, and provisions for what we're going to do in (university) settings when we have increased community transmission, which is going to happen in certain communities over this next fall," she added. "We are looking at all of the different factors that need to be accounted for."