Like many other campus constituencies, NASA has a number of significant concerns related to the University of Alberta’s return-to-campus plan and questions whether university leadership will be able to ensure a safe environment for students, staff, and faculty when the fall term begins just three weeks from now.
The message posted by President Flanagan on Friday did little to convince us that the safety of the campus community is, in fact, the university’s “top priority” or that university leadership has listened to the legitimate concerns of the campus community in formulating its return-to-campus plan. The president's message provides no substantive measures for mitigating COVID risk on campus, and fails to demonstrate care towards the campus community.
We’d like to stress that NASA has not been formally consulted or involved in any part of the university’s planning process to ensure a safe return to campus. As such, any reference to actions which may be taken by “the unions” with regard to campus restrictions are purely speculative on the part of university leadership. We should also point out that, while frustrating, this exclusion of support staff input from this planning process is unfortunately just the latest example of university leadership failing to meaningfully consult on important issues with the wider campus community.
We are also concerned that the university is using outdated information in formulating its return-to-campus plan. For instance, President Flanagan’s message suggests the university is relying on the recommendations made by the COVID-19 Vaccination Working Group back in mid-March. The situation has obviously changed significantly in the five months since this report was submitted, including most notably the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant, the removal by the provincial government of all health restrictions on July 1, and the end of testing, tracing, and isolation requirements in the province as of August 16.
NASA believes the university should initially apply the precautionary principle and err on the side of caution in its return-to-campus approach. At a minimum, this would mean a mandatory mask policy for students, staff, faculty, and visitors to campus when in shared areas such as hallways, classrooms, labs, and public-facing or shared work areas. Mandating masks is especially important given the provincial government’s decision to end testing and tracing prior to the beginning of the fall term, which means it is unclear how the decision to “reimpose mandatory masking if there is a temporary outbreak” could possibly be made.
We also support the position of the University of Alberta Students’ Union in calling for mandatory vaccination or proof of a health-related exemption for all students living in residences. While President Flanagan is correct that mandatory vaccination is a topic of significant debate, the university can make vaccinations mandatory for all individuals on campus (as have been done on some Canadian campuses and in other workplaces). Given that there are legitimate concerns related to protected rights and legal requirements around workplace accommodation that would need to be addressed prior to the implementation of such a policy, we reiterate our frustration at the exclusion of campus unions in such discussions.
Finally, we support calls for rapid testing on campus and for the university to measure and share ventilation and filtration information with all interested members of the campus community, which would help to ensure that staff are able to make an informed decision about whether they are being asked to work in an unsafe work environment.
Like everyone, University of Alberta support staff are excited to return to campus and to something closer to “normal” in September. However, university leadership has the responsibility to ensure that return is safe for everyone in the campus community, and NASA is not convinced that the return-to-campus plan, as currently presented, meets that threshold. As such, we encourage President Flanagan and other university leadership to listen to the widespread calls from campus groups to revisit and revise these policies prior to the start of the fall term, and would welcome the opportunity to participate in future planning to help ensure a safe and comfortable return in September.