Within hours of the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, University of Victoria students decided to take matters into their own hands.
At 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, a Change.org petition “Shut Down UVic and Keep Students Safe” launched, garnering over 1 300 signatures within the first 15 hours online.
“As students, we place great priority on our academics,” reads the petition. “However, current circumstances must be addressed. By continuing to ask students to come to school we are increasing the risk of not only being exposed to the disease but exposing our family members, our coworkers, our partners, and other loved ones.
“We are asking Jamie Cassels, the president of UVic, to take the initiative and close the campus in an effort to stop the spread of this virus and preemptively protect us.”
85 universities across the U.S. announced campus closures this week due to the pandemic, including Harvard University, Cornell University, the University of Washington, and Stanford University.
Alexia Benn, the third year political science student who created the petition, says she was inspired by a similar petition shared by a friend attending Capilano University. Benn expressed that she is concerned about the virus not just as someone who is asmathic with a history of severe pneumonia, but also in terms of the safety of her family and older members of the community
“I’ve been concerned for a while now about the virus and It’s just been getting to a point where I don’t feel comfortable going to class with such high volumes of students, but at the same time I can’t afford to miss class consistently if there’s no supplementary support that UVic is willing to offer,” said Benn.
“The idea that I could expose the elderly, infants, and my own family to something that’s potentially life threatening is something I take really seriously and I don’t want to have to choose between my education or the safety of others.”
The first case of coronavirus on Vancouver Island was confirmed that night, prompting the university to release a statement encouraging students to stay home if they feel sick.
“To date there have been no cases of COVID-19 reported at UVic and the university remains open,” said the university in response to the petition.
“Concerning the petition, we understand and appreciate the concern people are showing and we continue to take direction and guidance from public health authorities in how to respond to the outbreak as individuals and as a post-secondary institution.”
Since January, the university has assembled an academic Response Coordination Team (RCT) to monitor the situation and plan strategies so that COVID-19 does not disrupt academics, in addition to an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) to plan and respond in coordination with local health officials.
A similar petition, called “Close UBC Campus to Prevent the Outbreak of COVID-19,” was started a week ago by a University of British Columbia student and has so far acquired over 7 500 signatures. UVic has approximately 18 827 undergraduate students enrolled, while about 44 882 undergraduates attend UBC.
Benn says she didn’t expect her petition to attract so much attention within the first few hours, and is excited to see what impact this may have on the potential prevention of the virus on campus.
The UVic petition stresses the need for the pandemic to be taken seriously to prevent an outbreak on campus, adding that the use of technology for remote learning can help maintain education and public safety as top priorities.
“We already know the risks COVID-19 poses to the public … We must act now to keep students, their families, and the community safe,” the petition reads.
“If we wait until there is a case at the University of Victoria, it will be too late.”
Health officials are encouraging people to wash their hands and consider social distancing, and for anyone exhibiting symptoms to stay home. For more information, please visit the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website.
This article was updated at 1:15 on March 12 to include new information from the university.