Letter: Online school can no longer be justified as a public health measure

Several UBC Okanagan programs and individual UBC Vancouver professors have announced that their classes will be online for the foreseeable future. There is absolutely no public health justification for this decision, which will in fact exacerbate the negative health effects of COVID-19 on young adults. These UBC professors — and others who would follow suit — need to acknowledge the toll these personally-motivated decisions have on the students of UBC.

To say moving classes to online learning does not follow public health guidance is an understatement — it actively contradicts the work of public health professionals. A team of experts from the post-secondary sector, alongside the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), the Provincial Health Officer and other regional health authorities developed a set of guidelines to ensure that post-secondary institutions facilitate a safe return in-person classes. The BCCDC, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Advanced Education have been working for months to ensure that post-secondary institutions return in-person, and have taken every step to establish a safe return to campus.

The vast majority of the permanent UBC Vancouver population is already vaccinated (86 per cent age 12+ has at least one dose as of September 2). A survey conducted by UBC estimated that the vast majority of the UBC students are vaccinated (92 per cent of the 16,093 respondents had at least one dose) and those numbers will presumably continue to rise as vaccine passports are implemented, which makes campus a safer place for students to return.

Students will all either have to be fully vaccinated or undergo rapid COVID testing to prove they are free of infection. There have been very few COVID-19 hospitalizations for double vaccinated people in BC aged 20-29 this entire summer, according to page 19 of the BCCDC’s August 26 data summary. The health risk for UBC students returning to campus is as low as it possibly can be.

Many professors have been eager to vocalize their anxieties about returning to campus. Understandably, many professors are in older age groups, which have historically seen more serious consequences when exposed to the virus responsible for COVID-19. But they too are as low-risk as possible. Lecture podiums are physically distanced from students, buildings are ventilated and everyone will be wearing masks. These measures have been supported by public health authorities during this pandemic. To put it in perspective, professors will have a similar risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus buying groceries or commuting.

Moving back to virtual learning also completely disregards the documented negative impacts of COVID-19 on youth in BC. The BCCDC reported that young adults are twice as likely as people above the age of 65 to report worsened mental health during the pandemic. Young adults are also the most affected age group for unemployment, setting an all-time record high in BC. Young adults need to return to in-person learning for their health and wellbeing.

The decision to move classes online has been based on the opinions of individual professors, not public health officials. It is understandable that professors would be concerned about returning to in-person class — many students are as well — but these concerns do not follow the research and continued work of our public health sector.

Public health research has shown that COVID-19 is rarely transmitted in the classroom. Research has shown that vaccines are extremely effective against COVID, including the Delta variant. Public health officials support post-secondary institutions’ return to in-person learning — now is the time to follow this guidance, as we have done previously with physical distancing or vaccine recommendations.

It is unfathomable that professors would announce a switch to virtual learning one week before school starts. Affected students at UBCO and UBCV have moved and invested thousands of dollars in housing (and parking passes). They have left their jobs assuming that class would be in-person. They have left their families, their friends and their homes all in the name of their education.

UBC told students to drastically change their lives to accommodate in-person learning, which they did. Many international students especially have gone to great lengths to attend UBC. Now they give some students one week’s notice that they have decided to give some students one week’s notice that they have decided to renege their promise of in-person learning, even though the transition to on-campus instruction was supported by public health officials. One week’s notice is not enough for students to change their plans for the fall semester. One week’s notice feels dismissive of everything students have gone through to get to UBC. One week’s notice is not acceptable.

Universities in BC have treated themselves like they’re special for the last eighteen months. Nothing else shut down to the same extent as research universities. Kindergarten to grade 12 schools remained safely in-person, either entirely or partially. Many people stayed employed in-person through service positions or other work that was deemed essential, like teachers and nurses. People have been safely interacting in-person for much of the pandemic. Why are post-secondary institutions treated any differently now that we know it’s safe to return to campus?

It will do nothing but harm students’ mental and financial wellbeing to switch back to virtual learning now. BC public health officials support universities’ return to in-person learning. The faculty and staff of UBC must carry out this recommendation for the wellbeing of UBC students, and to uphold its purpose as an educational institution. It is time to listen to what the students and health officials are rightfully supporting, and go back to school in-person.

Carter Dungate is a fourth-year Honours English Literature and International Relations student. Over the summer he worked in BC’s public health sector to promote COVID vaccines for youth.