Edmonton

University of Alberta drops mask mandate, surprising students and profs

Students, staff and visitors at the University of Alberta will no longer be required to wear masks after the school announced Friday that it’s dropping the mandate as of Mar. 16. 

Change in policy will add stress to students, professor argues

University of Alberta is the latest of Edmonton's post-secondary institution to join the province and City of Edmonton in lifting its mask requirements. (Tricia Kindleman/CBC)

Students, staff and visitors at the University of Alberta will no longer be required to wear masks after the school announced Friday that it's dropping the mandate as of March 16. 

The university posted the update on its website, three weeks after the president said masks would be mandatory until the end of the winter semester, mid-to-late April. 

"We strongly recommend that you continue to wear masks in high-traffic or high-capacity spaces, and in other areas where you are in close proximity to others," the update says

The change in policy took professors and students by surprise. 

Jillian Buriak, a professor of chemistry at the university, said students have had to deal with enough changes throughout the pandemic.

"If they have to attend in person, this is nerve-wracking," Buriak said in an interview Friday. "I worry about the students and that level of stress because it's just been back forth, back forth, back forth." 

Buriak said it's better to be consistent and finish the semester with the same policy. 

"We told the students we'd be coming back with masks. Let's just finish this off," she said. "If this makes my students feel better, feel more comfortable — makes me feel more comfortable, then this is a minor inconvenience."

'Never a good time'

Andrew Sharman, vice president of facilities and operations and the lead of the school's public health response team, said the university made the decision late Thursday. 

"There is never a good time and we will hear negatively from part of our community, I'm sure, on this," he said. 

Sharman said the team has been talking about the mandate since the province lifted nearly all COVID-19 restrictions March 1 and the City of Edmonton repealed its face-covering bylaw this week. 

The fluid situation of the COVID-19 pandemic has required changing policies along the way, he noted.

"The decisions have always been hard, but we take them with the best information available and we make them at a point in time." 

Sharman said the mandate is suspended only and they can bring back the mask requirement depending on what happens. 

"We will react accordingly based on the best information from public health and our own experts," Sharman said. 

He's confident the majority of students and staff will continue to wear masks inside. 

Rowan Ley, president of the University of Alberta Students' Union, said the university's decision is a concern for students in tightly-packed classrooms where it's a challenge to maintain social distancing. 

"No one is asking for this," Ley said in an interview Friday. 

Many students signed up for in-person classes because the university declared a mask mandate in place until the end of the semester, Ley said. 

"So pulling the rug under them like this halfway through a semester is just really unfair," he said. 

The student union is giving out KN95 masks to anyone who wants one. 

They also plan to challenge the policy change with senior administrators next week, Ley said. 

Other post-secondary institutions in Edmonton updated their policies in the past week. 

MacEwan University originally said masks would remain mandatory for the semester, then on March 9 posted an update saying as of March 14, masks are no longer required. 

Norquest College and NAIT also dropped their requirements. 

@natashariebe

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