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SFU biology department breaks ranks with school on COVID-19 protocols

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Masks are now mandatory in one department at Simon Fraser University.

In an email sent to the biology department on Thursday, Dr. Isabelle Côté, chair of biological sciences said masks are mandatory in all biology classrooms and lecture halls, effective immediately. The email goes on to say staff have the right to refuse unvaccinated people entry to biology offices and labs.

“We’re not asking for proof of vaccination, we’re simply making it clear, if you’re not vaccinated, you should not be entering faculty offices or faculty labs,” Côté told CTV News.

Gabe Liosis, president of the Simon Fraser Student Society, says he’s hearing from students who are anxious about the return to classes next month, and not for normal reasons like stressful projects and exams.

“They’re very concerned about the fact that there are no mask requirements at most settings in the university, no social distancing requirements, and no capacity limits in most classes, lecture halls, or for events,” Liosis said.

Liosis applauds the biology department for exceeding the current COVID-19 safety measures implemented by the university.

“It’s really heartening to see a faculty going above and beyond the provincial health orders,” Liosis said. “In my view, it’s something the institution as a whole should be looking into.”

Since making the announcement, Côté says she’s heard praise from students and staff, who say they feel a better sense of safety as they prepare to return to campus. She’s also heard grumblings from school administration, but says it’s worth it.

“It’s absolutely essential that, very quickly, we mandate masks regardless of vaccination status and we mandate compulsory vaccination for everyone who can get vaccinated,” she said.

Several post-secondary schools in Ontario, including Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, have adopted mandatory mask and proof of vaccination policies on campus, but B.C. schools have not followed suit.

However, on Friday, UBC’s president and vice-chancellor Santa Ono said in a letter to staff and students that he supports an indoor mask mandate and vaccination requirement at the school. He says he has made his stance known to provincial health officials.

Meanwhile, Joy Johnson, the president of SFU, says the school is in discussions with the province about mask requirements, and an update will be provided to staff and students later in August. With less than a month until classes get underway, some feel time is running out.

“If we don’t see these basic health and safety measures put in place for September, we might see massive work refusals from our membership and other workers on campuses,” said Katie Gravestock, chief steward of the SFU Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU).

The TSSU is one of several groups to sign on to an open letter last week, asking the provincial government to implement stronger public health measures before in-person classes resume this fall. 

“What we’re hearing from senior administrators at SFU is that they have been directed by the province to not exceed the (provincial) guidelines, and I think that is extremely problematic,” said Gravestock.

B.C.’s top doctor says health officials are in regular talks with post-secondary schools about improving safety measures, but has hinted that requiring proof of vaccination for access to campuses is out of the question.

"I think what is critical, and I've said this repeatedly, is that we're not denying people an education because of their immunization status," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last week.

Côté hopes her efforts to bolster COVID-19 protocols in the biology department will encourage the school enhance safety measures across all faculties.

“Right now, with the numbers of new COVID cases as they are, we really don’t feel like it’s very safe to come back,” she said.

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