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British Columbia has said all students must be masked while indoors and noted that they will be forced to prove they are vaccinated if they want to live on campus, dine there or take part in most extra-curricular activities as part of B.C.’s coming vaccination card system.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Jonathan Ichikawa is polling the 131 students signed up for his second-year philosophy course on whether they feel comfortable cramming into the windowless University of British Columbia lecture hall to hear him explain the foundation of formal logic.

Within a few hours of him e-mailing them Wednesday morning, a quarter of his students had responded with strong opinions on whether or not they felt safe returning to an in-person learning environment where their classmates will be required to wear masks, but do not have to prove they are vaccinated.

“I can’t say right now I’m leaning one way or another, but it is really hard for me to imagine requiring students to fill up a classroom,” said Dr. Ichikawa, who added that he plans to come to a decision early next week on whether he’ll switch the course to online instead. “I’m mostly thinking about this in terms of being a responsible citizen with respect to public health.”

He said he has received no guidance from the university or his department as to whether he can decide to avoid in-person teaching this semester, something that post-secondary educators across the province are now scrambling to determine after B.C. announced its new rules for campuses Tuesday.

“My position is, I have the right to do that as part of my academic freedom,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday from his office on campus, where he still plans to have one-on-one meetings with students who are distanced and masked.

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British Columbia has not followed other provinces in allowing post-secondary schools to mandate that their students either be vaccinated or take a rapid COVID-19 test to return to class on campus next month. Instead, the province has said all students must be masked while indoors and noted that they will already be forced to prove they are vaccinated if they want to live on campus, dine there or take part in most extra-curricular activities as part of B.C.’s coming vaccination card system. Universities and colleges will be able to require that their staff, administrators and professors be immunized.

Annabree Fairweather, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., which represents the 5,500 faculty that work at the province’s five major universities, said the new rules raise more questions than answers as to what campus life will look like when classes resume in less than two weeks. Still, she said she still holds out hope that the provincial government will change course and allow schools to require students be vaccinated in order to attend classes or prove they do not have the virus through rapid testing. She said she was heartened by the province bringing back the indoor mask mandate this week after the Delta variant led to an alarming rise in new cases this month.

Brent Calvert, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators, which represents about 10,000 educators and staff at 20 of the province’s smaller universities and colleges, said his members are happy that students will need to wear masks. Most want a vaccine mandate for students, but he said bringing one in now might be too complicated even if it were allowed.

“What would that mean? How would that get deployed, and how do we do this in 10 days?”

Mr. Calvert said that four of the 20 unions represented by his organization have so far responded to an internal survey sent out after news of the new back-to-school rules broke Tuesday. About a third of respondents said they have kids under 12 years old who cannot get vaccinated yet, and another 38 per cent said they or someone in their household have a compromised immune system.

“They’re concerned about the fairness for all involved on campus,” he said.

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