British Columbia

Province confident in full return to university campuses as calls mount for mask, vaccine mandates

Faculty groups call for schools to have greater autonomy over rules; officials say there are 'active discussions' when it comes to proposed vaccine mandates for students and staff.

Faculty groups call for schools to have greater autonomy over rules; officials mulling over vaccine mandate

Students are pictured on campus during the first day back to school at UBC in Vancouver on Sept. 8, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Health officials say university students can expect a full return to campus come fall as B.C. forges ahead on its reopening plans despite climbing COVID-19 cases.

On Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province has been refining its return-to-campus guildelines alongside post-secondary institutions amid B.C.'s rising fourth wave, but the overall plan to bring students back into lecture halls and classrooms remains the same since it was initially unveiled on July 5.

"I do fully expect we'll have back on-campus instruction, it's just so very important for young people," she said.

Under current regulations outlined by the province, COVID-19 vaccinations are not mandatory to attend post-secondary institutions in B.C., but are recommended. Masks would also be a personal choice, aligning with the province's broader restart plan.

But with positive infections surging in B.C., including an average daily case count of 360 last weekend, health officials seemingly aren't taking additional measures off the table.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives an update on COVID-19 in B.C. on March 18, 2021. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

When asked whether the province would consider a vaccine mandate for university communities, Henry said there are active discussions with schools provincewide. For now, the emphasis will be on making sure all unvaccinated or partially vaccinated students, including international ones, will have access to one upon arrival.

"We will be ensuring that there is every opportunity for everybody to be immunized," she said.

Faculty call for school autonomy

But faculty and student groups are calling on the province for revised guidelines amid the soaring cases.

The Teaching Support Staff Union at SFU is petitioning B.C. Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang for a mask mandate, classroom occupancy limits and improved ventilation standards.

TSSU chief steward Katie Gravestock says many of the older classrooms at SFU are small, lack windows and have poor ventilation.

The Teaching Support Staff Union at SFU is calling for revised return-to-campus guidelines that would include a mask mandate and limits on class size. (Robb Douglas/CBC news)

"Even if we do have high vaccination rates, what we know now with the delta variant, is that we really do need to have vaccination along with public health measures," said Katie Gravestock, a chief steward for the TSSU.

The Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia has also issued a letter to Kang asking for the ministry to grant universities autonomy to institute their own policies, which could include mask or vaccine mandates.

CUFA B.C. says the ministry has directed schools to follow provincial guidelines as opposed to instituting policies of their own.

"What is necessary is that institutions hold the autonomy to make decisions based on a plurality of factors and informed by the needs of the local campus community," wrote CUFC B.C. president Dan Laitsch.

In a statement, the ministry said it's working with public health experts as it develops a response to CUFA's concerns.