TAs requested UBC increase COVID-19 safety precautions prior to February 7 return to campus

Prior to the February 7 return to campus date, the TA union sent an email to UBC calling for more COVID-19 preventive measures to protect its members.

On February 3, CUPE 2278, the union representing all TAs at UBC, sent an email to the university’s HR office based on findings from a short survey it sent out to members on January 27 asking how comfortable they were with returning to in-person instruction. The survey had 104 responses.

The email addressed two overarching concerns: the perceived lack of discussion surrounding needs and risks associated with commuting to campus and the lack of access to PPE, including N95 masks.

Additionally, around two thirds of the 104 respondents did not feel fully comfortable returning to campus, according to Phyllis Pearson, the president of CUPE 2278 and a PhD candidate in philosophy at UBC.

On January 31, a group of sixteen political science TAs sent a separate letter to the department petitioning further COVID-19 preventative measures, which also included a call for the provision of higher-duty masks, along with the creation of a hybrid options for tutorials and ensuring classrooms had enough space to distance from others.

The department deferred the letter to UBC since any changes would need to be made at the a university-wide level.

Pearson said the union was aware of the actions of the political science TAs. She said the union’s later survey and email “was prompted by concerns from a few members.”

“After hearing from these members, we wanted to conduct a survey to further our understanding of the situation so we could represent our members' concerns to the university.”

Pearson said UBC responded to CUPE 2278’s email on February 4. The university noted that it did not return to campus as soon as some other universities did and the university acknowledged the challenge of having to commute.

The university said it is following consulting with “the Provincial Health Officer and health authorities as to the risk level presented by our planned return to campus,” according to a union memo sent to its members. The email from UBC also referred the union to the TransLink page on COVID-19 safety.

As for masks, UBC’s email indicated it would not provide N95s, but rather the highest level of medical-grade masks. This decision was in accordance with the assessments conducted by UBC’s Occupational Health and Safety team.

Pearson found it helpful to hear some clarity from UBC, but remains unsure of how much reassurance this gave union members. She said she expects there to be a range of reactions.

The union is considering getting N95s itself, according to Pearson.

On this note, she adds “if it's what you need to wear to be safe at work, then I think your employer should provide that, it shouldn't be an expense that comes out of pocket.”

When asked about whether UBC planned to further increase measures, or if it considered doing so before the TA union reached out, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, said that the university has “always put the safety and security of our students, faculty and staff first.”

“We have a rapid testing program for people who declined to upload [their vaccination status] or indicate they're partially vaccinated or not vaccinated. We provide rapid testing on a weekly basis and we're providing people who are symptomatic with rapid testing kits,” he said.

Ramsey said that UBC has also been distributing 1.2 million National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved masks since February 7.

He added that these collective “layers of protections” are “extremely difficult to find anywhere else other than UBC” and “are above and beyond those requested by or required under provincial health guidelines.”

This article has been updated. A previous version incorrectly said that Audrey Pearson is the president of CUPE 2278. The actual president's name is Phyllis.