At least five Sauder students have COVID-19 after in-person program events two weeks ago

At least five Master of Management Dual Degree students have tested positive for COVID-19 following a series of in-person program events held during the last full-week of finals.

On December 12, the Master of Management Dual Degree (MMDD) program held an optional end-of-year gala organized by the program’s student exec team. The event — which happens annually — was school-sanctioned and partially funded by student tuition, according to two students. Two days after the gala, students were required to attend a two-day in-person Capstone project that was centred on an online simulation.

“Between the 12 and 14, there were already a lot of people feeling sick,” said Ellie, a current student in the MMDD program who tested positive for COVID-19 following the in-person Capstone. Her name has been changed for privacy reasons.

Four other students in the program who attended at least one of these events sent their positive test results to The Ubyssey. Many more cases are suspected, but those could not be confirmed by The Ubyssey before publishing.

Kurt Heinrich, senior director of UBC Media Relations, said UBC couldn’t confirm any COVID-19 cases due to privacy reasons, but confirmed that the gala on December 12 was organized by students and took place at a restaurant off campus. “It is our understanding that the event organizers followed provincial health protocols and guidelines,” he wrote.

Ahead of the December 14 Capstone, students were told they could either attend the Capstone or defer their program completion to the spring after they complete the in-person project in March or April, according to Ellie and three other students. Students were not allowed to Zoom in to the event.

“Our program finishes in December, so a lot of people already planned to not be here anymore, like international students. Or they have full-time jobs already. So they don't want to come back for a two-day online simulation,” Ellie said. All students in the program graduate in May.

Justin, a member of the student exec team for the MMDD program, echoed Ellie’s comments. His name has also been changed because revealing his identity could compromise his work in public affairs for the federal government.

“I don't blame people who wanted to show up [despite being sick],” he said. “What choice do we have? … If I'm in Toronto, I'm not spending $500 to fly back to Vancouver just for a two-day Capstone.”

Heinrich said that students who were feeling unwell were told to stay home and connect with the “[Robert H. Lee] team so [they] could work with instructors to offer appropriate accommodations.”

“For students who have extenuating circumstances and cannot be in country or have secured full-time employment, we work with them on a case-by-case basis to provide options that both meet the learning objectives of the course and program and also take into account their personal circumstances,” he added in reference to Ellie and Justin’s concerns over the deferral option.

‘It could have been done online’

At the Capstone, Ellie and another student in attendance said students were separated into small groups and placed in rooms with little ventilation. “People were coughing in there for eight hours … and we feel like that's what spread [COVID-19] even more,” Ellie said.

Justin said the president of the student exec team emailed program leadership about moving the Capstone online on the morning of the second day. When they didn’t get a reply, Justin went to the office to ask.

Halfway through the day, students were sent home. Heinrich said MMDD leadership made this decision after they were informed some students were feeling ill.

“[It] just shows how it could have been done online in the first place,” Ellie said.

After they went home, students received a letter from Vancouver Coastal Health, notifying “attendees of [the] UBC Sauder School of Business Capstone Masters in Management Dual Degree Gala” that a COVID-19 exposure took place “at a UBC Sauder School of Business social event” on December 12, the day the gala took place. Ellie said she received the letter after she had already gotten tested due to her symptoms.

['auto'] Courtesy Ellie

Ellie said class representatives asked for a meeting with MMDD leadership on December 16 to provide feedback on how students felt pressured to attend the in-person Capstone for fear of not completing their program, but were told “[leadership] was too busy.” According to Justin, a meeting between the class representatives and MMDD leadership eventually took place on December 21 in which leadership told students they “were spreading a rumour” that those who didn’t attend the Capstone would need to defer their program completion.

Justin, who is familiar with what was discussed at the meeting as a student exec, said the exec team felt that leadership blamed students for failing to communicate that they were feeling unwell. He added that leadership was not willing to commit to offering a hybrid option as an accommodation for people who are sick in the future. A student exec in attendance confirmed this.

Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey that students were never blamed for failing to disclose information.

“We did reinforce on a consistent basis that if they were not feeling well at any time or had concerns about potential impacts [to] their program, to seek clarity and ask questions so we could respond on their behalf appropriately,” he wrote.

“We empathize with the students on how challenging it was for them to navigate these times.”

The week before, the MMDD program faced criticism for enacting similarly strict in-person policies on next term’s cohort of students when it urged students to cancel any travel plans so they could attend classes in person in January. Meanwhile, Sauder announced that all remaining Commerce final exams would move online on December 18.

On December 22, UBC announced that all classes, save some programs that with clinical or experiential elements, would be online until January 24.

— With files from Charlotte Alden