British Columbia

University of British Columbia courses to go temporarily online while public health urges in-person classes

The University of British Columbia is moving its classes temporarily online at both its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses in the new year because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Some courses, including those with clinical, performance or studio components, will remain in-person

Students at the UBC Vancouver campus in September. The university has announced many classes will switch to online learning in January. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The University of British Columbia is moving its classes temporarily at both its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses in the new year because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The announcement comes a day after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry sent a letter to all post-secondary institutions Tuesday to "strongly recommend" on-campus learning, highlighting that educational settings present a low risk for COVID transmission.

In a statement, university president Santa Ono says campuses will remain open but instruction after the holiday break will be provided online until at least Jan. 24.

Ono says the school intends to allow in-person learning after that date, but university officials will monitor the situation and provide an update in the first week of the new year.

He says the decision allows time for faculty and staff to prepare course materials and other services.

The statement says some courses, including those with clinical or performance and studio components, will continue in-person with appropriate safety protocols in place.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant led Henry to announce new restrictions in B.C. on Tuesday, closing bars, gyms and dance studios.

Dr. Henry says post-secondary classes safe

Henry's Tuesday letter said the province would continue to monitor the threat posed by Omicron, but at this time the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risks.

Transmission is taking place outside of class, the letter said, in social settings with few or no measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"There is no evidence that moving to online post-secondary instruction will decrease such interactions, noting that students would spend fewer hours in structured settings, which have a lower risk for transmission," the letter read.

The University of Victoria saw a significant spike in COVID-19 cases in December, prompting exams to be moved online. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

"Since structured educational settings do not amplify transmission, a move to online instruction is not an effective means of reducing COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff, or in the wider community."

Henry also wrote vaccination is the most effective method of reducing the risk of getting COVID-19 on campus, adding that the post-secondary community is amongs the world's most vaccinated.

Public health will monitor the situation and provide new guidance as needed, Henry wrote.

Student union happy with decision

UBC's move to online learning was welcomed but not surprising, said Cole Evans, president of the school's Alma Mater Society.

He said many students were concerned by both the official case numbers in B.C. but also what he called a lack of information about the COVID-19 situation on campus. He said there have been anecdotal stories of students testing positive and then feeling pressured to come to class, especially with exams just wrapping up.

He thinks starting with online classes in January strikes a good balance.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said throughout the pandemic that it's not classrooms driving COVID-19 transmission among students, but rather social events with pandemic measures sparse or entirely absent. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

"I think this way the university has sort of bought itself a little bit more time at the start of January to sort of assess the situation," he said in an interview with On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"Hopefully with that, we'll be able to return to full in-person instruction later in the term, and hopefully at that January 24 start date, and that students will be able to get that sort of university experience of the academic experience that they come to expect."

Other schools resume on-campus learning

Douglas College, Vancouver Island University, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology plan to resume on-campus learning on Jan. 4, according to statements on their websites.

CBC News reached out to other institutions for their plans.

The University of Victoria, which saw a major cluster of Omicron cases tied to a rugby tournament and off-campus social events, said on Monday — the day before Henry's letter is dated — that it plans to continue with on-campus learning but is waiting for more guidance and will assess the situation as it unfolds. 

CBC asked for an update Wednesday afternoon but received no reply by deadline. Simon Fraser University likewise did not reply by deadline.

The University of Northern British Columbia said it would have an update Thursday.

With files from The Canadian Press and On The Coast


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?