For B.C. universities and colleges, welcoming students back to the classroom comes with a few tests

B.C. universities and colleges must contend with challenges such as preventing the spread of COVID-19 and making people feel safe with in-person learning.

Postsecondary administrators must contend with challenges such as preventing the spread of COVID-19 and making people feel safe with in-person learning

This month marks the first time that postsecondary institutions in B.C. have opened their doors for in-person learning since the start of the pandemic. While many students and faculty members are excited to connect with each another in person, preparing for this return has been no easy feat for administrators.

Not everyone is thrilled about the B.C. government’s push to bring students back to the classroom. In an open letter to Anne Kang, minister of advanced education and skills training, a group including postsecondary unions, faculty associations and student societies has called for the province to ensure that the return is as safe as possible.

“I think we all agreed it was something that we absolutely had to do for the mental health and well-being of our students,” says Joy Johnson, president and vice-chair of SFU. “But as time progressed, I think we all started to realize that there were going to be a number of safety issues we’d have to contend with.”

The provincial government advised public universities and colleges to prepare for in-person classes back in March. At that time, there was high optimism for case counts to plummet in the next six months, especially when vaccines were brought into play.

Fortunately, daily case numbers haven’t reached more than 1,000 since April. However, with the Delta variant causing a steady rise in cases over the summer, some schools have still taken extra precautions in addition to following public health guidelines.

UBC, for example, recently announced a “rapid testing” program that requires unvaccinated or partly vaccinated students, faculty and staff to get tested for COVID-19. After gathering enough data, the university will determine other steps such as frequency of testing.

“What we’re asking our folks to do is make their vaccine declaration, and that will give us a much better sense of on-the-ground requirements for the rapid testing program,” says Matthew Ramsey, UBC’s director of university affairs.

Too close for comfort?

The return to in-person learning after 18 months has also given schools the trying task of making people feel safe with being in the same room together again. After all, it isn’t the easiest transition to come back to “normal” after staying isolated for as long as some people have been.

“It’s been very clear to me that people are at very different stages in terms of their anxiety around COVID,” SFU’s Johnson says. “We’re trying to also navigate that and support people as best we can and bring them along so that they can feel comfortable returning to their work on campus.”

SFU adopted a Communicable Disease Overview in late July. This plan encourages those involved with the university to “stay home when sick, wear masks when recommended by public health, practice hand hygiene and cough/sneeze etiquette” and “follow other guidance that may be provided unique to the outbreak.” It also asks faculty and staff to complete the SFU Safety Orientation training module.

Looking ahead, university and college administrators must be ready to adjust to whatever might happen during the academic year. “We continue to navigate whatever the provincial health officer provides in terms of guidance and regulations,” says UNBC interim president Geoff Payne. “We’re planning for as normal a fall term as possible. With the planning we’ve put in place, we have plans B, C and D should we need to pivot.”

No one knows what that normal will look like, but it will be interesting to see how things unfold. The fall term is scheduled to run until mid-December at most schools in B.C.