August 31, 2021
Mike Mahon President
University of Lethbridge
Open letter calling for flexibility in program delivery to ensure a safe and effective learning environment.
Dear President Mahon,
Months ago, when the University of Lethbridge promised an in-person campus experience for Fall 2021, there was cautious optimism about the pandemic from our respective memberships. When it is safe to do so, we want to be back on campus for an in-person learning experience. However, the ground under which the decision to go back has shifted. There is wide agreement among experts that we are entering into a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the more infectious Delta variant. The return of K-12 and post-secondary classes to in-person delivery is now being overshadowed by this fourth wave.
While we commend your administration and counterparts at the UofA and UofC in developing mask mandates and rapid testing for the unvaccinated, we recognize you were forced to provide half measures under a Provincial Government that has completely dropped the ball during the worst public health crisis in over a century. We agree that nobody should be on campus if they are symptomatic. We agree that sick notes should not be required for accommodations of student illness. We agree, if learning must be face-to-face, the participants should be masked and ideally fully vaccinated.
However, there are many factors which will prevent an entirely in-person classroom experience this Fall. There will be accommodations for mask and vaccine exemptions. There will be accommodations for immunocompromised students. There will be students in quarantine. There will be professors, instructors, sessional lecturers and teaching assistants in quarantine. There will be dependents of all of the above in quarantine, meaning that students, staff, and faculty will require accommodations for dependent care. There will be international students stuck in their home country.
Under these circumstances, it makes little sense to place all our bets on rescuing a plan that was first developed in a completely different epidemiological context. It is inevitable that our classrooms will evolve to a hybrid model of in-person and online, synchronous and asynchronous. Students and Faculty will be moving back and forth, with great disruption to learning. Or, health measures will be ignored, with the result being conflict in the classroom between those who are following health guidelines and those who are not. This is what primary and secondary students experienced last academic year and we in post-secondary were spared. It makes little sense to cultivate it this year.
But above all, people will become sick. Sicker than necessary and in some cases very sick. Or they will pass the virus on to their loved ones and dependents.
Returning to fully in-person learning under these circumstances is simply unfeasible. The UofL made a decision some time ago to operate at 100% capacity, meaning that, in contrast to other universities, we have little flexibility for in-class mitigation measures. Attempting to force an entirely in-person experience in full classes regardless of the health status of instructors and students and the provincial situation will have negative impacts on safety and learning. There must be flexibility in how learning happens.
The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association, the University of Lethbridge Graduate Students’ Association, the University of Lethbridge Graduate Association, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (Prairie Region) therefore call on the Board to commit that flexibility in course design and delivery is a core value this semester. This means that, beyond legislative requirements, decisions about the method of teaching and safety in the classroom be made at the level of the classroom and in response to the developing epidemiological situation.
We commit to recommending to our respective memberships:
- that academic penalties for absences and late assignments related to the COVID health emergency be waived.
- that any substantial changes in the method of teaching (e.g. moving from in-person to online) do not require, as a condition of evaluation or grading, students to attend class at different times—with the exception of asynchronous material, to be available by the scheduled class time—add instructional hours, or require additional purchases.
- that any substantial changes in teaching methods be communicated to students with reasonable notice and consultation.
- that all substantial changes in the method of delivery be communicated by the instructor of record to their Department Chair, Dean, and the Accommodated Learning Centre as a matter of professional courtesy.
- that course outlines provide the https://www.ulethbridge.ca/campus-life/student-services link to assist students in accessing resources for their well-being and academic success.
- an invitation for students to inform the instructor if any change in method of teaching creates difficulty of access.
Our respective membership is concerned about the in-person return to campus. There are clear and present dangers to safety and learning in the classroom, and we are unsure what factor beyond health and safety would be more important when deciding program delivery. There are incredible minds at the University of Lethbridge, and the ones in the classroom environment are those best placed for determining their teaching and learning conditions.
As a university community, our number one priority must be to ensure the safety and well-being of our community members. As disappointing as it may be to admit that plans made last Spring have been upended, responsible leadership requires us to adapt to the situation in which we find ourselves.
University of Lethbridge Faculty Association President
Graduate Students’ Association President
Jackson R. Ham (he/him)
Chair – University of Lethbridge Graduate Association (ULGA) Graduate Students’ Association Vice-President Labour
Regional Executive Vice-President, Prairies Public Service Alliance of Canada