Dear Dr. Hinshaw,
Many undergraduates at the University of Alberta are concerned about the safety of the return to in-person classes on campus this fall. As the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU), we are aware of the mental and social toll online learning has had on the education of university students. We are eager to return to face-to-face instruction, but we want to ensure that reasonable precautions are taken both for the safety of the community, and to ensure disruptions of instruction due to COVID are never needed again.
In your editorial in the Edmonton Journal, you commented that Alberta will be “continuing COVID-19 protective measures in areas of high risk, and responding to local outbreaks where the health system is under threat”. We believe that the University of Alberta may constitute an area of high risk, and as such we are asking for you to consider recommending reasonable, limited public health measures on our campus.
There are several reasons that students worry the University may be a high-risk environment:
- The low vaccination rate among 20-29 year olds, a group that includes most of our campus community.
- Community members frequenting densely packed, poorly ventilated spaces including classrooms, lecture halls, and hallways.
- Frequent mixing of large groups between those areas, leading to few degrees of separation between the 50,000 people regularly on campus.
- Intense academic pressure and poor accommodations that often force students to go to class while feeling sick.
- The living conditions of thousands of students in dormitory-style residences with shared washrooms, cooking facilities, and cafeterias, where infectious disease outbreaks are a common occurrence. For example, in 2019, Alberta Health Services intervened to shut down a major campus event to limit a severe gastrointestinal disease outbreak.
- While most students are in low-risk age groups, over half of University of Alberta students live in multigenerational households with older or immunocompromised family members who may be at higher risk of severe outcomes. Instructors and staff members are also often older.
As you said in your editorial: “We are best served by trying to understand each other’s perspectives, engaging in respectful dialogue, and continuing to assess our approach.” Many community members are worried for the health and safety of their loved ones. Over a thousand students and staff have signed a petition for stronger health measures in the fall, and the Students’ Union has received many inquiries from concerned students.
The Students’ Union welcomes a return to in-person activities, and acknowledges that some risk of COVID transmission is inevitable. We believe that students should be able to exercise their best judgement on how they socialize and what optional spaces they enter. However, in the interest of public safety, we are hoping that you agree that the following reasonable health measures should be implemented in higher risk environments which students are required to enter.
Specifically, we would request that you consider recommending the following measures:
Mandatory vaccination (with medical exemptions) for students wishing to live in dormitory-style residences, where residents must share dining areas, kitchens, and washrooms. This follows the example of major Canadian universities including the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, Cape Breton University, Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Waterloo, McMaster University, and Concordia University of Edmonton closer to home.
Mandate masking in densely-packed areas that are not optional for students, such as lecture theatres, labs, and hallways.
Require students who have tested positive for COVID-19 not to attend in-person classes or university activities, in line with your comment that quarantine “could still be required in some high-risk environments, or for outbreak management” at your press conference on July 28th.
Rapid testing and wastewater testing on campuses to ensure that our institutions can react promptly in the event of a major outbreak.
Ensure that international students, who may only have one dose or be vaccinated with a less effective vaccine, can receive a dose of a Health Canada-approved vaccine promptly.
We recognize the multitude of health concerns that our health system has to address, many of which have a significant impact on post-secondary students. For many students returning to campus this Fall, however, how to navigate and reduce the risk of COVID-19 is still at the top of their mind. We owe it to the students we represent, the parents who are witnessing their children leave home for the first time, and the rest of our campus community members such as staff and instructors.
We hope you will consider the measures suggested above and provide guidance.
President, University of Alberta Students’ Union