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Some B.C. university students, instructors worry about eased restrictions in fall

Last Updated Jul 5, 2021 at 4:28 pm PDT

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Masks and physical distancing at B.C. colleges and universities will be optional in September

'It's too soon,' says an SFU student and teaching assistant

B.C. recorded 87 new COVID-19 cases over the past three days

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – It will very much be something closer to normal for universities and colleges in B.C., as the province outlined details Monday on what the return to class will look like in September.

Masks will be optional and physical distancing will no longer be required. Post-secondary education is expected to be on-campus and buildings with rooms at “maximum capacity.”

It’s all too soon for Doaa Magdy, an SFU student who is also a teaching assistant.

“I had like, three hours of an anxiety attack when I read that. I just personally believe it’s too soon, especially with the rise of variants. We don’t know what the future is going to look like,” she said.

She says as a graduate student, she works in smaller groups, which she hopes means she will be able to distance from other students. However, she is still worried about exposure from being a teaching assistant.

“Just being in a classroom with a large group of students, no one knows the status of vaccination of the other person. I feel it’s not just anxiety for me but the people around me, too,” she said.

“I have both my shots. I will still personally wear a mask to protect the person in front of me,” she added.

A UBC staff member who wished to remain anonymous said they had major concerns with the plan.

“As a parent with kids who are unvaccinated, I am concerned about having to return to an office with poor ventilation, especially because there is no mask or vaccine mandate,” they said.

Hamish Telford, an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, shares some of those concerns.

“This is essentially a return to normal at a time when we’re still not in normal. We are not back to normal yet,” he said, adding he felt apprehensive when he read through the plan for the fall, stressing that he was only speaking in a personal capacity to share his feelings about the plan, and not speaking on behalf of UFV or its faculty.

“I know a lot of faculty will feel … very apprehensive about going back into the classroom under these sorts of circumstances,” he said.

Meanwhile, Associate Professor Tom Davidoff at UBC says while he’d like everyone to be vaccinated, he will defer to the experts.

“I think it would be courteous to wear a mask, but I’ll certainly look to guidelines for that. Mostly, I’m just very happy that we’ll have the opportunity to be in person again,” he said.

In justifying the plans for the fall, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry points to the “excellent progress” in B.C.’s immunization program.

“That, along with declining case counts and low hospitalization rates, means we can gradually and safely move ahead with our restart plan – including in-person learning at our colleges and universities,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“We will continue to carefully monitor any transmission episodes on campuses, just as we do with influenza or other respiratory illnesses this fall, to keep students, faculty and staff safe. This is something we have shown we can successfully manage in B.C.”

On Monday, B.C. reported 87 new cases of COVID-19 over the past three days, including just 20 in the previous 24 hours. There are 85 people in the hospital, 22 of whom are in the ICU.

The province says 78 per cent of those aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine and 36 per cent have received their second dose.

But both Telford and Magdy point to other places in the world, such as the U.K., Australia, and parts of the United States as as examples of how sharply cases can rise.

“In the summertime, when it’s hot, people are congregating indoors to get the cooling of air conditioning. We tend to be outdoors in the summer, but we’re all going to start congregating in the fall in winter indoors,” Telford said, adding that’s concerning given more virulent COVID-19 variants.

Telford says many post-secondary instructors are teaching in older buildings with poor ventilation.

“Sometimes, in classrooms with windows that don’t open. And, in many cases, classrooms that don’t even have windows to the outside,” he explained.

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When it comes to remote learning, Magdy believes that should remain an option.

“It’s really important for accessibility,” she said, noting learning from home allowed her to escape discrimination she’s personally faced on her commute.

“I imagine all the BIPOC students are facing the same thing. It’s not just about going on campus. It’s about how you get on campus and all the anxiety you go through with racism on the way. Then you get there, and more anxiety with no masks or distancing.”

But Davidoff says many students were struggling with remote learning.

“I don’t think it was a lot of fun to be doing four classes on Zoom twice a week; it’s not as fun as being in person. I think they missed each other’s company. But they put on a really brave face,” he said.

If Telford were in charge, he says he would suggest staying in the current stage 3 of the restart plan through the fall.

“See how it goes. If it proceeds without too many hitches, then we could proceed to stage 4 in January. I think that would be more prudent,” he said, adding he doesn’t see many contingency plans for bringing COVID-19 restrictions back in, should case counts rise again.

If Davidoff were making the rules, he says he would “err on the side of strict.”

“Personally, I would err on the side of ‘Make sure everybody can document vaccination, where feasible, and I’d probably go more masks,” he said. “But two of these vaccines and the age distribution in the classrooms, I think it’ll probably work out okay. But that’s with a bit of hope, not knowledge, that it will be.”

The province expects daily health checks will still be required and people will still be advised not to go to class when they are sick.

Davidoff says at the end of the day, it’s a trade-off.

“Until the virus has completely disappeared off the face of the Earth, there’s risk. The thing you worry about, of course, is variants … So, until we are at zero, there’s going to be some risk that by getting into close quarters, we’ll have some transmission that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. But of course, there is of course the other side of living one’s life.”