Faculty express concern over unclear instructions regarding COVID exposures in the classroom

Faculty have expressed concern online that UBC has made it so only department heads can notify students of potential COVID-19 exposures in classrooms — a policy which the university says it hasn’t implemented.

In an October 3 tweet, the UBC Covid Tracker said they received confirmation of this new policy — previously, instructors were able to email their students directly on potential exposures — from seven faculty members, including one department head.

Dr. Darren Irwin from the biology department replied to this tweet pledging to his students that he would notify them if such an exposure occurred.

“If I am aware that [my students] have been exposed to a deadly illness in one of my courses, you can bet that I will make certain that they are informed,” wrote Irwin. “I find it shocking that anyone would think we should do otherwise.”

But in an interview with The Ubyssey, Dr. Daniel Coombs, head of the math department, expressed uncertainty about the UBC Covid Tracker’s claims. He was under the impression that instructors were offered the opportunity to ask their department head or risk management to notify students on their behalf if they felt uncomfortable doing so themselves.

“[Instructors] were asked to report [notifications] to Risk Management,” he said. “No one ever told me that our faculty in math were not allowed to notify students.”

On October 2, Dr. Evan Thompson from the philosophy department, replied to an earlier tweet from the UBC Covid Tracker with a screenshot from UBC administrators that told instructors to notify their department head of exposures, but did not specifically prohibit them from notifying their class.

Coombs thinks that it is appropriate to notify students of COVID-19 exposures but the channel they receive this information from is not significant.

“I think as long as the information is still going out … then I don't think it matters if it comes from the department head or if it comes from the instructor themselves.”

In the math department, faculty members are welcome to notify their class or ask Coombs to do so on their behalf.

“Faculty are welcome to make careful and respectful statements to the class, [while] respecting the student’s privacy wishes,” said Coombs.

“If one of my instructors … was not comfortable notifying their students and asked me if I would do it, then I'll be more than happy just to send a brief message.”

Coombs has not directly spoken to anyone outside of the math department about how they are approaching COVID-19 exposure disclosure. He did state that, per their last meeting about this matter, the faculty of science has not been told that communications about COVID-19 exposures needed to go through the head of the department.

In a statement emailed to The Ubyssey, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, acknowledged that some faculty may feel obligated to share information around potential COVID-19 exposures in the classroom.

“The University’s recommended approach is that these matters should be referred to the Department Head, School Director, or Administrator to manage rather than have the faculty member undertake this additional responsibility,” he wrote.

“We do not anticipate any effect on students from this change. Safety and Risk Services is not engaged in informing of potential exposures on campus, unless requested to do so for contact tracing purposes by Vancouver Coastal Health.”

Ramsey added that, from the start of the pandemic, “there has been no expectation” that the university would communicate potential COVID-19 exposures.

Coombs said the number of exposures in the math department has been “very low.” He estimates this number to be below ten. Coombs acknowledged that this number might not be an entirely accurate representation of infections in the department.

“[Students may not] know if they’re infected,” he said. “If they’re infected they may choose not to tell their instructor,” which he emphasized was a “bad choice.”

Coombs is confident that instructors would notify him if a student indicated they had been infected with COVID-19.

“The fact that not many notifications are going out is because there are very few notifications being made to the faculty, at least in [the math] department.”

This article has been updated to include a direct quote from Matthew Ramsey on the university’s recommended approach to communicating COVID-19 exposures. A previous version included a summary of Ramsey’s quote conveying the same message in the writer’s own words.