With classes just under two weeks away, there has been a number of important developments with regard to the University’s return-to-campus plans for the fall semester:
- The Board announced a “testing mandate” in conjunction with the Universities of Calgary and Alberta (August 17);
- A number of policies with regard to the return to in-person classes this fall were released;
- The province’s COVID numbers continued to rise as we entered what is clearly a major “fourth wave,” driven by the Delta variant.
In this post, we review these developments and make specific suggestions for ways you can ensure as safe and productive a semester as possible for you and your students. We encourage you to contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions.
The post has eight major sections:
- A discussion of the Testing Mandate and its implications for your classroom practice
- A list of the most important COVID policies and documents published by the University in the last several weeks
- Recommendations for a statement you can include on your syllabus regarding the testing mandate
- A discussion about your rights and responsibilities in enforcing COVID policies in your classroom
- A discussion and update of the action we are taking to uphold Members’ rights to determine the best method of instruction for their classes under Academic Freedom provisions of the Collective Agreement
- A discussion of your right to accommodation should you or dependents require one in light of the COVID emergency
- Some recommendations with regard to accommodations for your graduate assistants and undergraduates students, developed through discussions with the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and University of Lethbridge Student Union (ULSU)
- An announcement regarding some Townhalls on the return to campus to be held over the next several weeks.
The post is long, because there is a lot going on.
The testing mandate: Its implications for your classroom practice
The University of Lethbridge announced on August 17 that it would implement a “testing mandate” this fall together with the Universities of Calgary and Alberta. This was a very positive development. While a voluntary testing mandate is much less strong than an audited vaccine mandate, it took courage on the part of the Board to take a stand in the face of a government that has only recently delayed plans to eliminate most public health measures with regard to COVID-19.
Having said this, it is important for ULFA Members to realise that the “testing mandate” will be of symbolic value primarily in its current form:
- While everybody on campus must attest to their status on the University of Lethbridge’s COVID app, no documentation is required and individual responses are not currently being audited. This means that there is nothing currently in place to stop individuals making false or erroneous attestations as to their vaccine, symptom, and testing status.
- Members will not have access to individuals’ declared status. Even if individuals respond accurately, instructors will have no way of checking their answers as the app is not intended to function as a passport and instructors cannot ask to see the attestation or even whether one was made. This means that individual Members will have no way of knowing whether anybody in a given classroom has reported whether they are vaccinated, tested, or asymptomatic, or even whether they have reported this status at all — let alone whether their status report is accurate.
For these reasons we advise Members to assume that every person in their classroom is at least potentially infectious.
Update: Sept 8, 2021. The University announced on Sept. 7 both that they will be conducting random spot-checks of attestation and allow instructors to check whether or not students are in compliance via the app in their classes. This considerably improves the utility of the app and our August 27 warning (i.e. the text above) is no longer true.
The COVID policy: Key documents
Soon after the testing mandate was announced, the University published a set of COVID policies. These appear to be a revision of drafts seen by ULFA and other stakeholders at the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee. They reflect several suggestions made by ULFA and other stakeholder groups, although the final draft was not circulated to these same stakeholders and we were not informed as to the publication schedule or final approval process.
The key documents for Members are these:
- Faculty and Staff general FAQ (Webpage)
- Return to class FAQ (Webpage)
- Face Mask enforcement guidelines (Sharepoint: contact us if you cannot access this)
- COVID-19 Safety plan (Sharepoint: contact us if you cannot access this)
ULFA staff members have reviewed the policies to check whether the links are accurate and forms operate as required. We found a number of errors and have reported these. We are told that they will be fixed.
A statement about enforcement of the Testing Mandate for your syllabi
Guidelines published by the University (Sharepoint) recommend adding a statement about mask-wearing to your syllabi:
In compliance with the mask mandate for the health and safety of all persons on campus, students attending classes in this course will be required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth for the duration of the class, as well as when gathering outside the classroom prior to entry and when leaving the classroom at the end of the session.
Our view is that this statement does not go far enough, in as much as it does not refer to the full COVID policy and testing mandate and does not indicate that there are consequences for failure to adhere to these policies.
For this reason we recommend adding a stronger statement and instituting a zero-tolerance policy for violators. Here is one potential model:
All students in this class must be in compliance with the University’s COVID policies, including the mask/testing mandate. This means that all students attending an in-class session currently are required
- to wear masks covering their nose and mouth for the duration of the class, as well as when gathering outside the classroom prior to entry and when leaving the classroom at the end of the session;
- to be free of all symptoms listed on the University Health Check website;
- to be double-vaccinated or have tested negative on their most recent COVID test, which must have been taken no more than one week ago;
- have reported their current vaccine/test/symptom status on the University’s COVID app.
There is a zero-tolerance policy in effect with regard to these policies, and any subsequent amendments or additions. Violations will be reported, are subject to penalties under the non-academic offences policy, and may result in a cancellation, or rescheduling, of individual classes or a change in the method of delivery.
Your rights and responsibilities in enforcing the COVID policy in your classrooms
Under Article 11.02.9 you have the right to maintain order and safety in the classroom. Under Article 11.02.2 you have a right (and the Board has a duty to provide) to a safe workplace free from unfair discrimination, harassment, or abuse of authority.
In their Face Mask Enforcement Guidelines (Sharepoint), the Administration suggests steps Members can take to enforce COVID regulations in the classroom, including approaching non-compliant students, although they also note that
No one is expected to enforce the use of masks beyond their own level of comfort, or in a manner that might put themselves at risk. In circumstances where conflict may be escalating, or there is the potential for a negative outcome, the procedures that follow will support the campus community in addressing concerns with compliance.
What this means is that you are under no obligation to confront students about non-compliance if you feel uncomfortable doing so or if you believe that this presents a risk of escalation or a negative outcome.
If you are confronted with obvious violations of the COVID policy and do not wish to confront the offending student(s), you may treat the situation as you would any other physical danger in the classroom (e.g. such as a live wire or an infection hazard): inform students that the class space is unsafe, cancel or reschedule the class, and report the safety issue to your Dean and Health and Safety using the required reporting form. We recommend that you contact ULFA (email@example.com) as well for advice and support.
Can I just ignore violations?
We strongly recommend against continuing class without immediately addressing infractions of the COVID policy (i.e. do not ignore or “turn a blind eye” to violations). The University has completed a Hazard Assessment (Sharepoint) for returning to campus/work learning activities. This rates all major work/teaching activities on campus as being of Moderate or High Risk before mitigation. Mitigation measures include elements of the masking policy and testing mandate.
Unmasked or apparently symptomatic individuals therefore represent a recognised danger to you and other students in the room: by “accommodating” the non-compliant student, you may be harming others who are following the rules and trying to protect themselves and their families.
You may be exposing yourself to legal liability should there be evidence you failed to act in response to a recognised danger.
Academic freedom and the right to determine your classroom pedagogy
ULFA’s position remains that instructors have always had the right under Article 11 to determine the best pedagogical methods for their classes without interference and without jeopardizing employment and in keeping with their right to maintain order and safety in the classroom.
We are aware, however, that Deans and other senior administrators have instructed individual Members as to whether or not (or what percentage of their classes) they are allowed to teach online, including a recent letter from one Dean establishing a test of 50% in-person vs. online. In our view this is a straightforward violation of Members’ academic freedom. We have consulted with our lawyers on the matter and will be launching a grievance in order to protect your rights.
Because this is contested, Members can expect pushback should they decide to exert their rights. If you are considering switching to fully online methods of instruction, we strongly recommend that you contact ULFA to discuss your situation.
Your rights to accommodation and sick leave
It is going to be very important in the coming semester that Members take care of their health. The University’s COVID policies require everyone who is sick to stay away from campus. Members may also require accommodation in light of the COVID emergency on the basis of one or more protected grounds such as disability on the part of yourself or a dependent.
Traditionally university culture has encouraged academics to work through illness and disability. In the current emergency this is against university policy. ULFA can help you determine whether you require an accommodation or answer questions about your rights to sick leave. We strongly encourage you to contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) for advice on how you can protect yourself should you have any worries about your health or the health of your dependents.
You can read more about accommodations generally here: https://www.ulfa.ca/accommodations-what-are-they-and-how-are-they-obtained/
Karl Laderoute, our professional officer, can help you understand how these rules pertain to your individual circumstances.
Accommodating your TAs and students
ULFA Members have always been student-oriented. Supporting students will be more important than ever in the coming semester, remembering always that this support should not come at the expense of your own health or safety.
First, please stand by your TAs as they attempt to maintain safety in their tutorials and labs. Consider also finding additional work for them should they be forced to cancel a lab or tutorial, in order to make up their hours as it is unclear whether they will be paid in the event of a cancelled class.
In the case of our undergraduate students, please remember that they are not to blame for the current uncertainty.
We have spoken with the ULSU Executive about some of the challenges they foresee if a decision is made to move a class online. From that conversation we have suggestions for how to communicate any shifts in classroom modality and which resources may be useful for students. Here is sample language you could use on your syllabi:
To ensure a safe and successful semester there will be no academic penalties for absences and late assignments related to the COVID pandemic.
If there is a change modality of the class, such as the location (physical or online), it will be communicated in a reasonable length of time and, when feasible, in consultation with the class. This change will also be communicated to the Dean, Department Chair, and Accommodated Learning Centre.
With the exception of asynchronous material, which will be available by the start of the scheduled class time, no changes to modality will require, as a condition of evaluation or grading, attendance at lectures outside of scheduled class hours, or additional purchases.
There are resources available to assist with your academic success, including studying and writing supports, accomodations, counselling, healthcare, computer labs, scholarships and financial support and more.
Here is a lengthy list of such supports:
Please contact me if you have any difficulty with accessing the classroom or learning materials.
Thank you for keeping the safety of your colleagues and students in mind alongside your own, remembering always that your own health and safety and those of your dependents comes first.
We are plannings two townhalls for next week (Sept 1, 10:00-11:30 am and Sept. 3, 2:00-3:30 pm and ) and another one or two for the second week of classes (dates and times TBA). The purpose of these townhalls will be to provide an opportunity for Members to discuss the current situation with ULFA staff and executive, to answer questions, and refer Members to additional resources. We expect each meeting to be different as different Members raise different issues, so you are welcome to attend more than one. We hope also to arrange to have our lawyer present at least one of these meetings.
These are stressful times. We have been meeting weekly both as an executive and with our lawyer throughout August and are doing our best to keep you informed of developments as they occur. Please contact the ULFA staff or executive (email@example.com) with any concerns or suggestions you may have.
And above all, take care of yourself.