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University students campaign for stronger health measures

After a period of quiet, three Albertan universities have adopted new face-mask and self-isolation requirements.
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Universities will have public-health measures in place this fall, including face masks in public spaces and rapid COVID-19 testing for those who do not wish to disclose their vaccination status. FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

Three Alberta universities have adopted new health measures as students, staff, and faculty prepare to return to school in-person this fall. 

The University of Alberta, University of Calgary, and University of Lethbridge released an announcement Aug. 17 that face masks will be required in all public indoor areas on their campuses. Those who are not fully vaccinated or who would prefer not to disclose their vaccine status will need to complete regular rapid tests before they participate in in-person activities. 

Additionally, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be required to self-isolate for 10 days.

These measures were much different than those that appeared in an Aug. 6 announcement from Bill Flanagan, the U of A's president, who at that time said masks would not be required when classes resumed in the fall. Further, while Flanagan's statement encouraged vaccination, there was no mention of a mandate. 

Rowan Ley, U of A Students’ Union president, said the Aug. 17 health measures are a sign that “community pressure really does work.”

“A lot of people are under the impression that the university and the government are these immovable brick walls that no amount of community activism can ever change,” Ley said. “That’s just not true. They do respond to opinion where they can, and that’s exactly what happened.”

On Aug. 1, Jillian Buriak — a U of A chemistry professor — began circulating an online petition urging the university’s president, provost, and the board of governors’ chair, to adopt more stringent health measures. 

Within 68 hours of its creation, the petition had garnered over 1,000 signatures.

Additionally, the U of A Students’ Union launched a social media campaign documenting which universities around Canada had adopted health measures in preparation for the return to in-person classes. 

Ley argued these measures “contributed considerably” to the university's change of direction. 

“There was a wave of energy and activism that started with Jillian Buriak’s letter that I think the Students’ Union contributed to significantly,” Ley said. “The university felt they had to respond because of their reputation with their stakeholders, and their employees.”

According to Ley, pushing for these health measures was important both because of their proven effectiveness, and to help ease the transition to in-person learning amid ongoing uncertainty. 

“Going from fully online semesters back to normalcy is not the right safety move yet,” Ley said. “Also, psychologically, a lot of people are not quite ready. Making sure people feel safe and welcome on campus is important, especially for those who are immuno-compromised.” 

Reagan Morris, a third-year education student and Students’ Union education councillor at the U of A, also highlighted the role student activism played in pushing the university for new health measures. 

"Students were saying that something needed to be done, and I think that attention made the university sweat a bit," Morris said.

Student expresses outstanding concerns

Morris said they were “grateful” to hear about the updated health measures, but added the measures will require proper implementation to be fully effective. 

“There is a mask mandate, but … if somebody is not masked, we can’t do anything about it, so the regulations seem haphazard,” Morris said.

Morris argued in addition to a comprehensive plan for how health measures should be implemented, the university should also incorporate education for faculty, staff, and students about why the new health measures have been deemed necessary. 

“One of my professors sent out an email saying she is very disappointed that we will have to wear masks in class, and that she is going to try and fight the mandate,” Morris said. “What percentage of the university population feels that way?”

Morris said as an education student, they’re particularly worried about the impact refusing to mask could have on the community. 

“We’re going to schools,” Morris said. “We’re in buildings with children who can’t be vaccinated.”

The details of how the new health measures will be implemented at the University of Alberta are still being announced. 

A recent Aug. 19 request from the U of A's public-health response team looked to recruit members of the university community to volunteer with the administration of rapid testing clinics on campus. 

Currently, the university's website says students will be required to self-declare their vaccination status.

Ley said the Students’ Union would prefer proof of vaccination was required, but said he still believes that the new health measures represent important progress. 

“Last week’s announcement is a big step up,” Ley said. “My job is largely to be critical, and I often am … but I think it's important for leaders in university to know the community does appreciate it when they do the right thing. If we make this known, I would hope they’ll do the right thing in the future.”

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