A private Catholic university in Calgary is planning for its students to return to in-person classes weeks before other local post-secondary institutions, prompting worries from some students as COVID-19 transmission in the city remains high.
St. Mary’s University’s planned Jan. 31 return to classrooms is nearly a month earlier than some other Alberta universities with larger student populations, many of which pushed back in-person classes as the highly contagious Omicron variant surged across the province.
The University of Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the University of Alberta, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and the University of Lethbridge are set to continue online classes until after reading week, with a return to in-person learning planned for the end of February. Mount Royal University is set to begin phased return to in-person classes on Monday.
St. Mary’s told students coming out of the winter break that classes would be online until Jan. 28, with a reassessment to come at the end of the month. On Friday, students were informed of the decision to return to class via an email from school administration.
Now, a petition is circulating among St. Mary’s students, calling for the university to postpone the return to in-person learning and improve safety protocols before students go back. As of Sunday afternoon, the petition had more than 200 signees after a single day, amounting to almost 20 per cent of the school’s roughly 1,200 students.
“If we were to return to in-person classes now . . . there will certainly be spread in the school. The policies currently in place are insufficient to stop spread with the numbers being as high as they currently are,” reads the petition, a copy of which was obtained by Postmedia.
“Omicron has an extremely high infection rate, and the neglectful procedures taken this last semester will not hold up, especially in February when cases are expected to peak. They were not acceptable last semester, and they are especially less so now.”
The students are asking for proper and enforced masking rules — including professors during lectures — HEPA filters in classrooms, improved distancing, and continued vaccine and test verification. The petition also claims communication from school administrators on COVID as a whole has been lacking, and students’ concerns have gone largely unheard.
“This announcement has happened far too close to the intended date of return. The U of A and U of C made their decision weeks ago. Students who need to arrange for transportation, work schedules and child care have been left with little to no time to do so,” reads the petition.
“We have not been asked for an opinion regarding whether classes should be in-person or virtual. We have had limited, if any, communication from administration regarding COVID policies.”
The university’s vice-president and provost, Tara Hyland-Russell, said the decision was made by the school’s COVID task force, which consulted with post-secondary institutions and other smaller schools.
“We’re much, much smaller than the three big (post-secondary schools) in Calgary. We don’t have massive groups of students gathering and we have a really rigorous process to ensure that students have their vaccinations or have submitted their negative tests,” said Hyland-Russell.
“One of our markers has always been whether K to 12 is in-person and all the school boards are still in-person. So it doesn’t seem to make sense to have online university when K to 12 learners are in-person.”
The school’s administrators are aware of the petition but it has not yet been formally submitted. Once it is presented, Hyland-Russell said the school will work with students to remedy the issues they brought up.
“Any time students are raising concerns, it’s going to get a response,” she said. “We really care about our students, and we’ll sit down with them and discuss their concerns.”
Hyland-Russell said the petition is rooted in a single program at the university, and claimed it is “more questions rather than serious concerns.”
“They just want to know what steps we’re taking, what protocols we’re following,” she said.
“I think more than anything else, they’re tired of COVID, they’re stressed and they want reassurance.”
Kessa Stuckert, president of the school’s student legislative council, said she and her colleagues have heard the concerns of students but are remaining neutral on the issue of the petition.
“The petition is very much a limited demographic and number of students,” she said, adding the petition started in the school’s Discord, a group messaging platform that is only used by some members of the school population.
“It might be only representing a certain group of people from a certain program rather than from all across the whole board.
“We do acknowledge the concern and obviously we’re advocating to make sure that return to school is as safe as possible. But, realistically, the school is safe to return to and it’s following AHS guidelines.”https://www.facebook.com/DanWilliamsPeaceCountry/posts/359744452794488?__cft__=AZUWU8d_rJh9QAVl9bPS3QwDwA8fcHEszqc_kMeHmUTtShRpBgo2J8cGhC-r5uMJAtshV7WGURxzI-_t59JbTNnwqk3itMIspPrxpMwVZxCuMJNFCYw7ADU4A3-4Q2Y2QBp6XESgXDotGkg49JqrwRhv&__tn__=%2CO%2CP-R
UCP MLAs Dan Williams and Joseph Schow penned a letter last Thursday to the heads of several Alberta post-secondary institutions calling for the schools to eliminate vaccine requirements on campus and hasten the return to in-person classes.
“All post-secondary institutions in Alberta should remove their backward-thinking COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” reads a letter signed by the two MLAs.
“These same institutions should allow all students the option to rapid test so they can return to school, complete their education and help build a strong Alberta.”
The NDP’s advanced education critic, David Eggen, issued a response on Friday, calling for Williams and Schow to retract their letter and apologize to the schools.
“These schools have been abandoned by the UCP to make significant health decisions for their students, staff and faculty without any guidance or support from the government. All while shouldering the financial burden of $690 million slashed from their budgets by the UCP,” said Eggen.
“We know that being vaccinated is one of the best tools we have to ensure there is less pressure on our health-care systems by lowering the chance of adverse effects from COVID-19, and helping against community spread.”