Message From ULFA President About the Return to Campus

Dear Colleagues,
Like many of you, I was shocked by the decision of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Health’s announcement last week regarding the elimination of isolation requirements for COVID-positive individuals, of testing for asymptomatic individuals, and similar regulations. 

I am not an epidemiologist, microbiologist, infectious diseases expert, or public health expert and so cannot claim to know better than the CMO in terms of the scientific basis for her decision. 

As a member of the community, both within the university and the larger city and province, however, I can be surprised and worried by the degree to which this decision is out of line with decisions made by similarly qualified officials in other jurisdictions. 

No other jurisdiction is refusing to test asymptomatic individuals, refusing to trace contacts of infected individuals, and refusing to require symptomatic and positive individuals to isolate. Like many of you I remember at the beginning of this pandemic how several jurisdictions in which CMOs decided to stray from the developing international consensus came to regret the significant harm these decisions caused. My hope is that our CMO is correct and that this time things actually will be different.

Members are contacting us about the implications of this decision for the return to campus this fall. As is well-known, the University of Lethbridge was among the first universities to indicate that classes this fall would be in person, a decision that was taken long before there could be any certainty about the conditions we are likely to encounter this fall. This decision was made in the initial (and in some cases ongoing) absence of policy governing some basic questions of health and safety, including 

  • whether or not there would be a mask requirement, 
  • whether or not vaccines would be required, 
  • whether or not symptomatic individuals would be banned from campus, 
  • what kinds of accommodations would be available for instructors who are particularly vulnerable to the virus or who are responsible for dependents who cannot be vaccinated, or are in other ways vulnerable,
  • how decisions and policy will be made and communicated in response to emergent situations.
Today, five weeks from our first classes, we know the answers to some of these questions in the broadest terms. But we do not know how actual policies will be implemented or enforced in any substantial detail. While members of the joint employer and employee Health and Safety Advisory Committee have been recently consulted on some of the issues involved in developing such a policy, neither they nor the various unions on campus have been presented with specific language. We do not know how students who require accommodation from COVID requirements will be identified or the need for this accommodation communicated to faculty members. We do not know how the proposed mask mandate will be communicated and enforced in the classroom. We do not know what, if any, mechanisms have been established for faculty, or their dependents, who are especially vulnerable to COVID to report this and adjust the means by which they deliver their classes. We do not know what rules and enforcement will be in place for symptomatic individuals or individuals who have been in close contact with infected individuals. We do not know specifically how we are to deal with outbreaks in the community or any individual classes.

This situation is unacceptable. The COVID public health emergency is the most significant external event that has ever affected our university. When the University decided to lead by announcing that it would be returning to in-person classes this fall before other institutions, it took upon itself an obligation to lead also in the way it developed and communicated policy, consulted with community members, and took steps to address their concerns. Far from doing so, however, we have lagged consistently behind other institutions in policy development, communication, and consultation. 

The CMO’s decision to absent the Province from the enforcement of COVID regulations emphasises how important it is for Faculty, Staff, Students, and Administration at the U of L to work together in ensuring a safe and successful fall term. While we are late in producing the required policies, we are not too late. ULFA has been advocating for proactive and transparent policy development and communication for months. We continue to assist as the new term approaches. We are also preparing additional information for the use of our Members regarding how to determine whether a classroom is safe, their rights and obligations under the Human Rights and Occupational Health and Safety Acts, and how to enforce safety in the classroom. 

We encourage you to report to us any suggestions and/or concerns you may have with regard to the reopening. 
Dan O’Donnell
ULFA President