B.C. health officials hold town hall on return-to-campus plan

Campus News Provincial

Health officials answered questions about vaccines, student safety, and international students

David Strong Building with COVID-19 notices on the doors
COVID-19 notices at the entrance of the David Strong Building. The campus remains mostly deserted after UVic discontinued in-person classes in March. Photo by Michael John Lo.

On May 10, Public Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Deputy Provincial Health Officers Réka Gustafson and Brian Emerson participated in a virtual town hall with university administrators from across B.C. The town hall was a chance for public health officials to answer questions about the Return-to-Campus Primer released earlier this month. The event was conducted virtually by Thompson Rivers University and featured a Q&A session. 

“I know there’s a wide variety of anxieties and confidence that people have about how we’re going to move through the next few months,” Henry said. “Our plan is to support you in every way that we can to make sure that it is a safe environment as we move into the fall.”

The Return-to-Campus Primer sets out provincial health authorities recommendations for the fall. The primer states that there is no need for physical distancing in classrooms, that vaccines will not be required, and that masks may be required depending on transmission rates. Online options will only be available to instructors who request them or for classes with high international enrollment.

Key themes discussed at the town hall included the importance of getting students and staff vaccinated, the safety of a return to classrooms, and accommodating international students and students who are immunocompromised or have a disability.  

In response to questions about why physical distancing wasn’t included as a recommendation in the primer, Gustafson said that data gathered from primary and secondary schools showed that even without students or staff being vaccinated transmission rates were low and that the biggest risk for transmission is unstructured face-to-face contact at social gatherings. Having the majority of students and staff vaccinated will lower the risk even further, says Gustafson.

“What we know is that where COVID-19 is transmitted is where people are intermingling, hugging, yelling, singing, kissing, talking loudly,” said Gustafson. “[For example], without that close face-to-face contact that you might have in a bar…we have learned [in-person learning] did not pose an excess risk.”

With the recent influx of vaccines into the province, Henry announced that everyone over the age of 18 will have the opportunity to receive their first dose by the end of June, and their second dose by September. Henry said that the province has pushed up their timeline between doses from 4 months to 3 months as a result of new research on the effectiveness of lengths between doses as well as due to the wider availability of vaccines.

Henry told university administrators that students have faced mental health challenges in online courses. She advocated for a balanced approach to the return — one that is safe and allows some return to normalcy on campus. 

For international students, Henry says the province has been in discussions with the federal government about how to best facilitate their return to Canada. As part of these discussions, the government may implement a vaccine program for students during their mandated two-week quarantine.  

Dipayan Nag, the UVSS Director of Finance, remains concerned that international students will not be accomodated. 

“I think there’s sort of a lack of understanding, perhaps even just a disconnect, on policies that the province has, versus the [on the] ground realities,” Nag told the Martlet. 

Nag, who served as the UVSS’s director of international student relations last year, said that international students face challenges as simple as placing an online order for groceries. Nag said some students don’t have credit cards for these online purchases.

Nag would like more online options available to students. 

“In the past year, we have seen that any class can be made available online, and for UVic, it’s not really hard to do,” he said. “Taking that help back is really not helpful and detrimental to our education for international students, those who are not able to travel, those who are immunocompromised, and it is not safe for them to be in a class setting.”

UVic is still in the planning process for the fall return. More information will be available soon.