Message from the President – Return to Campus

Dear Members,

The latest BC Provincial Guidelines (Guidelines) for reopening post-secondary campuses were released on 5 July. While this document is disappointingly thin on details, the general message is fairly clear and continues BC along the paths enunciated by the Minister of Advanced Education in its March 8 primer for reopening. The public health emergency that Dr Bonnie Henry announced in March of 2020 is being scaled down in stages and, in the fourth stage (which is set to begin the day before classes start at UBC) the emergency is deemed essentially over. The Guidelines imagines that for the beginning of fall classes “COVID-19 can be managed in the same manner as other common respiratory infections” (p 5).  Given this understanding of the state of Covid-19 in September and given an understanding of the likely vaccination rates, the Guidelines charts a path “back to normal institutional policies and guidance on occupational health and safety” (p 3).

Now, many have objected that the presuppositions of BC’s reopening plan are too sanguine. Indeed, in light of the changing landscape of both the disease and our knowledge of the disease, a moral argument can be made that if student, staff, and faculty health and safety are, as they have said, UBC’s highest values, a much more precautionary approach to reopening the campuses—an approach involving mask and/or vaccine mandates—would be appropriate. 

The UBC Faculty Association (FA) has sympathy for such objections and such arguments, but in the absence of information from UBC’s own modeling as well as a more secure understanding of the potentially discriminatory effects of mask and vaccine mandates, the FA cannot responsibly advocate for mask or vaccine mandates at this time. Our task as a union is, instead, to fully understand what “back to normal” will actually look like and to do whatever we can to ensure a safe return for our members, our fellow employees, our students, and our families. To this end, we have been urging and continue to urge the University to make the risk-benefit assessment underpinning its proposed policies known to our members, indeed to the whole UBC community. The UBC community deserves a full and transparent accounting of the information and values that UBC is relying upon in its reopening process. We do not at this point, however, know what UBC’s best estimates of the UBC vaccination rates are, what the likely transmission and morbidity rates UBC associates with those vaccination rates are, or what the benefits are that UBC believes outweigh these risks.

Here are the salient things the FA would like you to know or to consider:

First, despite the language of “normal” in the Guidelines, there is no way in which the circumstances in which we are returning are normal. The Guidelines imagines Covid-19 as an endemic flu-like illness in September but then goes on to detail an expectation that there will be a greater demand for and range of student accommodation requests in the envisioned fall term. Among the groups who will have special needs are international students arriving unvaccinated and Indigenous students whose communities might still be in a health emergency. Moreover, not only will there be more respiratory illness but, as the guidelines also acknowledges, there will be a far greater level of overall health anxiety in the fall. We are certainly hearing from an increasing number of members regarding their concerns for safe research, teaching, and learning environments.

Increased student accommodation, especially if there is planned lecture-capture or hyperflex teaching, means hugely increased workloads for our members. We are also working to get clarity from the University about its understanding of the range of accommodation requests faculty must accept, about whether there is an expectation that certain labour-intensive remedies be undertaken, and how these will be supported and resourced. We are working hard to see that our membership does not see yet another increase in its workload as the University sets its own expectations for the fall. In a letter we sent to the University on May 20, the FA asked a series of questions about how the University will resource and support what appears to be a continuance of increased and excessive workloads. If we are, in fact, returning to normal, then normal workloads and workload practices are our expectation. We will continue to press the University on these points so that our members can return to a normal work-life balance.

Second, in the matter of teaching modalities, whatever process your unit or Faculty had for determining online or hyperflex teaching before the pandemic is the process it should be using now. This is not to say that individuals, units, and Faculties have not learned important lessons and that all decisions would be the same as before—but it does mean that whatever collegial decision-making processes have been in place in the past are the very processes that should be engaged now.

We have been receiving lots of inquiries from members who have questions about accommodations owing not only to disabilities, but also to concerns about health-related risks of returning to in-person teaching. The standard accommodation procedures will be in place for members who require such supports. If you have any health-related vulnerabilities, we encourage you to meet with your Head and discuss your options for an informal accommodation. You do not need to divulge information about your health concerns during this discussion, medical information will only be necessary if you require a formal accommodation. If you have any questions around what this means for you, please contact us at [email protected] and we will assist you.

Finally, the FA is well aware that there are many questions of detail that our members have sought to have answered regarding the coming term that are not answered in the recently released Guidelines and were not answered in the June town halls. In addition to topics discussed above, these questions are on topics such as classroom management and record-keeping, the reporting of outbreaks, coverage if faculty must self-isolate, intellectual property in hyperflex teaching, sick days for sessionals employed below 50% of fulltime, the treatment of Indigenous and international student consistently with UBC’s DEI commitments, and many others. As we mentioned above, we wrote to the University in May and again in July expressing our concerns and we continue to press the University to provide answers to the questions and concerns contained therein. It would be unconscionable for the University to send its faculty and its students into the classroom in the fall without substantial guidance on fundamental issues such as these. We are now three weeks past the release of the provincial guidelines and it is time for UBC to provide detailed information relevant to its academic community.

Alan Richardson

The BC Provincial Covid 19 Return to Campus Guidelines can be found here: BC Provincial Guidelines