Fall 2021 Post-secondary Health & Safety Petition
Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Honourable Patty Hajdu, Honourable John Horgan, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Honourable Adrian Dix, Honourable Anne Kang, and Member of Parliament Jagmeet Singh,
We write as students, faculty members and staff at post-secondary institutions in British Columbia. We are writing to express grave concern about current plans for returning to face-to-face teaching and learning on campuses this fall. The provincial government’s Covid-19 Return-to-Campus Guidelines published on July 5, 2021 contemplate a return to most pre-pandemic practices, including no required masking. However, the last few months have seen case counts rising, over 25% of 18-40 year olds remaining unvaccinated, and new more infectious variants emerging. Public health measures must account for this changing public health situation, particularly in light of the distinctive characteristics of higher education institutions. Returning to campus without due attention to the concrete harms of this next phase of the pandemic for the university environment puts our communities at significant and undue risk.
In this letter, we call on governments to require that all individuals who come to campus are vaccinated or undergo regular rapid testing, and that masks be mandated in all public indoor spaces, including classrooms.
Experts are uniform in reporting that the Delta variant is much more infectious than previous variants. Indoor classes routinely run from 50-170 minutes and can include 300 to 500 students in each classroom with absolutely no space for physical distancing. Students (and their instructors) are moving from one such classroom to another over the course of a single day, mixing in crowded hallways, lounges and washrooms between classes. With our current understanding of the nature of aerosol spread of the virus, the risk of infection is too high. We need multiple layers of protection in those contexts to protect individuals and to stop community spread.
Experts are clear that vaccinated people can transmit Delta to others.
This is particularly problematic for students, faculty and staff from households with children under 12, or those who are themselves immunocompromised or have immunocompromised family members, and for all who live with underlying health concerns. It is essential to reduce the risk of infection as much as possible for post-secondary educational community (PSEC) members, particularly those in off-campus households where infection for others is dangerous.
This is particularly important given that not everyone who wishes to can (yet) get vaccinated, including children under 12 and some immunocompromised members of our communities.
Children do get seriously ill with the Delta variant. Recent experience in the US and other countries shows that children too young to be vaccinated are more at risk from Delta and are hospitalized in increasing numbers. We also know that children can and do get Long COVID.
It is reckless to eschew protections that would reduce infections to children connected to faculty, staff and students present in the post-secondary environments.
While vaccines protect well against hospitalization and death, early indications are that vaccinated people can get Long COVID. This has devastating effects on individual lives and is likely to burden public health substantially in the long term. Until community transmission is better controlled, it makes ethical and financial sense to use layers of protection in PSEC contexts to help control spread.
In the absence of a vaccine mandate and a masking requirement, universities will be inviting, and requiring as a condition of employment, people into spaces where the Covid-19 virus has a high probability of spreading. If all individuals on campus were known to be vaccinated, the chance of exposure on campus would be much lower, enabling most people to more safely participate in in-person exchanges. Mask mandates can further reduce the risk of breakthrough infections. Without these safety measures, students, staff and faculty with health conditions or with vulnerable family members will be functionally excluded from campus. This outcome is inconsistent with shared aspirations of both the government and post-secondary institutions for safe working and learning environments and the values of equity and inclusion.
As emphasized by Kasari Govender, the BC Human Rights Commissioner, the balancing of rights and obligations required to create a fair vaccination mandate requires attention to nuance. There is no reason to believe that a well-designed system could not protect individual freedoms, human rights and privacy rights in a reasonable and proportionate manner. Policy could include reasonable exemptions, combined with regular rapid testing. Protecting the public from illness and death in the context of a pandemic is a weighty public goal indeed. Individuals have the right to elect not to be vaccinated, but we call on government to balance that individual freedom with the consequence for individuals who would be excluded from their work or learning due to the actions of those who have made that choice.
Permitting Covid-19 spread on campus would impact everyone connected with our institutions, including the communities where our campuses are located. Our institutions aspire to have a mutually respectful relationship with those communities, and our return-to-campus plans must reflect this. No one wants our universities to be the source of increased hospitalizations, Long COVID, and other harm to the broader community. As students, staff and faculty, we call for mandatory vaccination and indoor mask use not only as a way to protect our own health and that of our families, but also to live up to our obligations as members of our larger communities.
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