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VADA president Simon Longmore said he had spoken with VCH Chief Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly, second from left, who had outlined the guidelines.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

It was, as the e-mail blast said: “fantastic news.” The Vancouver Academy of Dramatic Arts sent a message to students and teachers last week announcing that in-person classes could resume immediately, after guidance from Vancouver Coastal Health.

VADA president Simon Longmore said he had spoken with VCH Chief Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly, who had outlined the guidelines. They included allowing only 10 students a class, ensuring appropriate physical distancing in the studios and offering proper hand-washing stations. Students would have to sign a waiver stating that they would not come to class if they had any symptoms.

“We took that information and held it up against our current classroom to see if it was able to be done within the guidelines given,” Mr. Longmore told The Globe and Mail.

But the plan upset some of the academy’s teachers and has caused an uproar in Vancouver’s acting community. And it also raises questions about what authorities consider safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fallout – resistance from instructors and severe backlash on social media that Mr. Longmore called cyberbullying – prompted VADA to reverse its decision and the school remains closed for in-person classes.

But Mr. Longmore maintains that his initial intent was to look after the students. With 120 of them signed up and waiting for courses, he says his top priority was to keep those students engaged and supported. Many of them, Mr. Longmore says, are international students and were facing various issues, including mental health concerns. “We feel that online delivery was helping but we wanted to really give them our full support.”

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Mr. Longmore sent out a survey to students and instructors. He says 70 per cent of the students wanted to return to the classroom under Dr. Daly’s guidelines. But all of the instructors – who had been temporarily laid off in March when the school shut down – opted for online delivery. And four teachers submitted their resignations.

“I was not comfortable with this proposal during a pandemic,” Andy Thompson wrote in a Facebook post.

Another instructor, Graeme Duffy, called the decision to resume in-person classes during a global pandemic and provincial state of emergency “reckless and not in line with who I am as a teacher or as a person,” in his letter of resignation. “Finding loopholes around student in-class capacity during this time is [abhorrent],” the letter continued. “It doesn’t make VADA a good global citizen.”

The Facebook post attracted some 150 comments, calling the plan, among other things, hasty, foolish and negligent – and questioning the idea of even making such a request of Dr. Daly.

VCH confirms that Dr. Daly provided that guidance and says as long as VADA meets the requirements under the public health order for mass gatherings, it can continue to operate.

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“The academy operators sought Dr. Daly’s advice on how to safely resume some aspects of their program. She provided the academy with a number of guidelines, which they have agreed to observe,” VCH told The Globe in a statement.

It added that VCH Public Health has provided similar advice to other businesses that are continuing to operate.

On Tuesday, VADA issued a statement, and pointed to the March 27 announcement that the provincial health officer’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people would not apply to schools as long as students and staff were not in one place at one time and were actively engaged in physical distancing.

Also in the statement, it said it had not placed any pressure on instructors to return to work and teach in-person classes. “We fully respect our instructors’ decisions and concerns regarding safety for themselves and our students,” it said.

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