UBC continues to hold in-person classes during COVID-19 outbreak, calls for calm

Shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic earlier today, UBC has decided to keep classes on campus but prepare contingency plans in case Canadian health authorities recommend halting large public gatherings.

Some universities in the United States such as University of Washington, Harvard and Columbia are moving courses online. In Canada, University Canada West in BC and Laurentian University in Ontario have moved courses online as a precaution. The coronavirus has also impacted university travel and events. UBC postponed its Physics Olympics event and the University of Western Ontario has canceled university-sanctioned international travel for students until June 1, 2020.

Yesterday, UBC sent out a mass email confirming that, because the Public Health Agency of Canada classifies the risk to Canada as “low,” operations would continue as normal until further notice. The university is also posting regular updates and advice to its website.

“Our overarching goal is to minimize the disruption to our students and their educational progress. We are supporting faculty to develop new teaching strategies that don’t require in-person sessions that fit the particular needs of their course, discipline and context,” reads the email.

According to UBC Media Relations Director of University Affairs Matthew Ramsey, UBC convened a task force of stakeholders in January which is now meeting twice a week to plan the university’s response from an operational standpoint. The task force is also in close contact with the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) to relay the latest public health updates.

‘The university treats the health and safety of its students, faculty and staff very very seriously, we have been working flat-out on this for more than a month now,” said Ramsey.

“Any student with questions, anybody in our community with questions about what the university is doing, what operational responses are — what they can do is go to ubc.ca.”

Right now there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among any UBC students, staff or faculty members. The BCCDC recommends that those who have travelled to Hubei, China, Iran or Italy, been tested positive for COVID-19 or interacted closely with someone who has, should self-isolate and monitor their symptoms.

The university has also been posting information bulletins regarding hygiene in residence and in washrooms around campus. Ramsey said the university is encouraging students to pay attention to the guidelines and stay home when they are sick.

“[We] encourage students to pay attention ... to the guidelines being put out there. Stay home while they are sick, call 811 if they are sick and follow the hand washing and hygiene guidelines that we are trying very very hard to make sure the entire campus and community is aware of,” he said.

Students and faculty react

Students are divided on whether UBC should move classes online. The Ubyssey polled two Facebook groups: UBC Class of 2022 and UBC Class of 2023. In the former, 282 out of 479, or 59 per cent, said they would prefer the cancellation of in-person classes. But in UBC Class of 2023, 297 out of 442 students, or 67 per cent, said they would prefer to continue classes in person and monitor the situation closely.

Overall, 427 of 921 students polled, or 46 per cent, thought UBC should cancel classes.

UBC student Michael Cheung commented on the post that face-to-face interaction is necessary for an effective learning environment.

“Of course everybody’s gonna say ‘[move courses] online’ to find an excuse to stay in the comfort of home instead of transit out to school, but especially for things like office hours and getting help, those need to be in-person for the greatest effect,” wrote Cheung. “I personally would need that in-person interaction and classes so I can readily ask questions and for help.”

But others said BC Health should take warnings from authorities like WHO seriously.

“I just genuinely don't understand how BC health can say the risk is still low for BC while WHO has assessed it to be very high and obviously these are official assessments that affect decision making of all organizations including UBC …” commented UBC student Mina Freeman.

Some students have launched petitions on Change.org to suspend in-person classes, one of which collected 4,386 signatures as of publication.

UBC student Sean Lin started another petition because he believes avoiding public spaces will protect his family.

“… I have not been able to focus in many of my lectures lately due to COVID-19. I move seats and hold my breath whenever another student coughs near me,” wrote Lin, whose petition collected 1,882 signatures in a day. “I live with my elderly grandparents, and I am in fear of bring[ing] home a disease that is likely fatal for my grandparents.”

Faculty members have also been reformatting their classes to be accessible online to prevent the spread of the disease.

In a written statement to The Ubyssey, botany and zoology assistant professor Dr. Laura Parfrey said she is recording her lectures for “students that may not be willing or able to come to campus as a result of COVID-19,” but otherwise she is holding regular classes as requested by the university.

Dr. Chris Erickson, a professor in the department of political science, told The Ubyssey in a written statement that he decided to transfer his classes online based on “careful consideration of the risks” and his own personal medical history.

Erickson said his early decision has also allowed him to test drive the Collaborate Ultra software on Canvas for teaching his courses and so far it has worked well.

“From my perspective, the benefits of shifting to electronic lectures at this time (for both me and for others) outweigh the risks (however minimal they may currently be) of not doing so,” said Erickson.

“As much as I love being in the classroom and speaking directly with my students, I am certain that this is the correct call both for me and for them at this time.”

—With files from Harshit Kohli

This article has been updated to include comments from Dr. Erickson, as well as information about petitions to suspend classes and Laurentian University’s decision to move its courses online.