Announcement of return to campus for fall term prompts laundry list of challenges ahead

“Cautious excitement” is how AMS President Cole Evans described the AMS’s attitude to the announcement of more on-campus activity this fall.

Since UBC and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s announcements on Monday, concerns have emerged around vaccinations, accessibility and public health on campus.

“For us the bottom line is we know that people want to get back in person but we also know that people want a safe return to in person,” Evans said.

“So we’re going to make sure our advocacy [to the university] is always centred around those two very important, but also very basic principles.”

UBC Media Relations Director of University Affairs Matthew Ramsey said that all decisions about the fall term are being made in consultation with public health institutions.

President Ono wrote in a broadcast on Monday that as the university transitions back to in-person, preventive health measures will remain in place — that includes non-medical masks, frequent hand washing and physical distancing.

Given rapidly changing circumstances regarding vaccines, Ramsey said UBC will have more details about a return to campus in the coming months.

“UBC will continue to put the health and safety of its students, faculty and staff first and foremost, as we have done since the beginning. And we will continue to follow the health guidelines as they are mandated through the provincial medical health office,” Ramsey said.

Challenges ahead

But returning to in-person classes and more on-campus activity comes with challenges.

“[Those challenges] range from accommodating students who may be coming in from overseas, to opening up classroom spaces, and transit planning,” Ramsey said.

Evans said in early conversations with the university, the administration seems to be aware of the major issues that come with return to in-person.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re asking them for things and they’re not listening. I think they also know these are priorities that need to be worked on. That’s a good first step,” he said.

Evans spoke of the need to include immunocompromised students or students who just feel uncomfortable attending in-person classes in planning for the fall. He also highlighted issues around international students — in obtaining study permits, vaccinations and even in simply entering the country.

Vaccinations may be a tricky issue to navigate, said Dr. Jamie Scott, a molecular immunologist and former professor at Simon Fraser University. All BC adults are expected to receive one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by June — with the expectation that most university students will be vaccinated at least in part by the fall. But that won’t apply to students coming from outside of BC.

Scott said that unless an immunization documentation system is introduced —such as vaccine passports — it is likely that UBC will not know how many of its students have been vaccinated.

UBC students should be “encouraged to get vaccinated, and it should be made easy for them to get vaccinated,” Scott said.

Evans also spoke of the need to make sure residences are safe for students — amid recent COVID-19 exposures in first-year residence.

Scott also recommended that UBC increase access to testing for students as viral transmission is more likely in shared living spaces. Currently, rapid testing is only available to students living in first-year residence.

“If you can make it easy for that student to get tested ... all the better,” Scott said.

Evans said the AMS is working on community consultation to ensure their advocacy is informed by students’s concerns. He encouraged students to provide the AMS with their thoughts.

“From this point on it’s just making sure … there’s follow up on [those priorities] to make sure that they’re addressed properly by the university.”