Staff feel ‘really scared’ for fall term with no mask or vaccine mandate in place

Many UBC staff members are joining faculty and students in objecting to the university’s plan for a return to in-person instruction, raising the surging Delta variant and lax policies as causes for concern.

In March, the provincial health authority signalled universities to prepare for an in-person fall term. Three months later, faculty members raised concerns over UBC’s back-to-work mandate, which some found to be inaccessible and in violation of their academic freedom.

The AMS also criticized the university for doing the “bare minimum” to ensure student safety and called for mandating masks in lecture halls and vaccinations in student residences.

The Association of Administrative and Professional Staff (AAPS) has now pursued action based on these concerns, providing individualized advocacy for staff and launching an inquiry into the university’s correspondence with the provincial government on COVID-19 regulations.

In a recent anonymous Reddit post, a staff member cited the Delta variant and inconsistent vaccine access for international students as reasons why the return to in-person instruction is making staff members worried.

They alleged to The Ubyssey that UBC has “completely ignored” staff concerns, leaving them feeling “really scared” and “totally unprotected.” The staff member has requested to be anonymous for job security reasons.

The staff member told The Ubyssey that they live with vulnerable family members, including a child who cannot be vaccinated and someone undergoing medical treatment. They said they also work alongside several elderly and immunocompromised people in an office that supports a high volume of students.

They said that they felt sincere compassion for students who have lost out on the university experience, but stressed the difficulty of the situation that many staff members are finding themselves in.

Citing the unpredictable new variant and the largely unknown effects of long COVID-19, they called on UBC to take more precautionary measures, including mandatory vaccinations for students living in residence and more accommodations for workers to stay home if they have symptoms.

They said that they were waiting for clarification from UBC on what kinds of protections they are entitled to, such as whether they would be allowed to put up a sign in the office saying “masks encouraged.”

“[UBC] has asked us what our concerns are, and when we raise them they always say that ‘This is what the province has told us is going to be,’” they said. “They are following the province’s guidelines, but things have changed [since] those guidelines were written.”

Joey Hansen, the executive director of the AAPS, said he has seen “significant concern” around the absence of a vaccine and mask mandate as well as UBC’s lack of transparency on its plans.

In a memo to AAPS members, Hansen said he filed Freedom of Information requests to both the university and the provincial government regarding any correspondence between the two on the issue of returning to campus in order to determine how much leeway UBC has in exceeding provincial standards.

The memo also said that individual advocacy will be provided if staff members choose to exercise their right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. It stated that if any AAPS members contract COVID-19 due to the university’s decision to reopen without vaccine or mask mandates, the AAPS will “pursue any and all legal recourses available to us and our members.”

Hansen told The Ubyssey that after witnessing the university ignore the concerns raised by the AMS, the AAPS has decided to take a more individualized approach rather than plead the issue directly with the university, which Hansen said he felt would be a “colossal waste of time and effort.”

“It’s disappointing to see that the university is only willing to do the bare minimum,” Hansen said. “Just as disappointing is the patronizing and dismissive attitude that the university has taken to any organization that has raised these requests.”

Kurt Heinrich, senior director of UBC media relations, said in a statement to The Ubyssey that the university has been working with different partners like WorkSafeBC to develop institutional safety plans.

“UBC follows the direction of the provincial government, the Provincial Health Officer, and regional health authorities across B.C. The provincial government has emphasized that post-secondary institutions should not mandate mandatory masks or vaccination policies at this time,” Heinrich said.

But the staff member said they aren’t reassured by the precautionary measures that UBC has put in place.

“I’m not confident, and the university hasn’t done a good job of making me feel confident,” the staff member said.

On Friday morning, President Santa Ono came out in support of a mask mandate and a vaccine mandate. UBC has not yet instituted any official policies, however.