British Columbia

Petitions demand UBC suspend regular classes over COVID-19 spread

The university says it's preparing to potentially move classes online, but it's business as usual for now.

University says it understands the concerns but taking direction from health officer and province

Students are pictured on campus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Two petitions circulating online are pleading with the University of British Columbia to protect the school's tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff from the fast-spreading COVID-19 by temporarily suspending regular classes at its Point Grey campus. 

The first petition, created by Kevin Su, was posted last week and has, so far, garnered nearly 4,800 signatures in support of closing down the Vancouver campus.

A second petition received more than 2,100 signatures in a single day. 

"I have not been able to focus in many of my lectures lately due to COVID-19," its author, Sean Lin, wrote in the petition's description. 

"I move seats and hold my breath whenever another student coughs near me. I live with my elderly grandparents, and I am in fear of bring[ing] home a disease that is likely fatal for my grandparents," he continued. 

"A significant portion of [the] student body are wearing masks to lecture, demonstrating that I am not alone in my fear."

Exams to begin April 14

According to the university's website, more than 44,000 undergraduate and nearly 10,000 graduate students attend the school's Vancouver campus, while more than 9,000 students are enrolled at UBC's location in Kelowna.

End-of-semester exams at the university are scheduled to begin on April 14 and continue until the 29th. 

Students at the University of British Columbia sit and chat in the Student Union Building, or 'The Nest' on Jan. 12, 2018. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

On the day the World Health Organization officially declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic, British Columbia's top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, announced that seven more people in B.C. have tested positive for the illness, bringing B.C.'s total confirmed cases to 46.

Two of the newly announced cases are related to the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, where an elderly man died of the virus earlier this week.

The number of people infected globally rose to more than 118,000 in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths, on Wednesday.

UBC taking direction from health officials, government

Despite concerns from some students, UBC says, for now, normal operations will continue as no presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been found on either of its campuses and, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the public health risk associated with the virus remains "low." 

But Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs for UBC media relations, says the university is exploring the possibility of offering classes and exams remotely. The school is currently developing an online system to facilitate that.

University of British Columbia campus. (Robb Douglas/CBC)

What might trigger a campus shutdown?

Ramsey told CBC News "it's too early to speculate," but the decision would be made in partnership with guidance from relevant government officials, like provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and Interior Health. 

"We are aware of those petitions, and, of course, we understand the concerns," Ramsey said. "We are working really hard to make sure that we respond in an effective, appropriate and prudent manner to any concerns that we hear and see."

Early in January, the university convened a series of working groups which are meeting regularly to monitor the situation, develop plans and, if necessary, respond to the growing health crisis. 

The school has also encouraged all students, faculty, staff and visitors who have travelled to areas especially hard hit by COVID-19, such as Iran, Italy or the Hubei province of China, to stay home for two weeks upon their return.

Residences at UBC. Some students want to see regular classes suspended. The university says it is working on a contingency plan involving online classes and exams. (UBC)

UBC is encouraging those who have been tested for the virus or have had close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 to do the same. 

While UBC stands pat, scores of institutions around North America have decided to take preemptive measures to protect their communities from possible contagion.

On Wednesday, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, joined Harvard, Yale and dozens of schools in the United States in announcing it would move all classes online "until further notice."

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