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Students' concerns heard, UBC says, but in-person exams will continue

Vancouver -

The University of British Columbia says assurances from public health officials have influenced its decision to continue with in-person exams, despite concerns from students about the spread of COVID-19.

Kurt Heinrich, the university's senior director of media relations, says deans will allow students who are worried about their health - such as those who live with family members or others who are part of a high-risk group - to ask for their exams to be deferred.

“We’re hearing though, many, many students just want to proceed,” he said.

Heinrich added that the university is in constant contact with public health, as well as abiding by orders and recommendations set out by the provincial health officer.

UBC’s response comes after students and their representatives called for the cancellation of in-person exams over concerns about the lack of distancing in exam areas that hold hundreds of students, as well as symptomatic students attending these exams.

Eshana Bhangu is the vice president for academic and university affairs for the Alma Mater Society, the UBC students' union. On Sunday, she told CTV News Vancouver the union is still pushing for the university to move all in-person exams online.

"It's just a lot of students in jam-packed halls," Bhangu said of the exam process so far.

"We've had people, you know, even sitting on the floor in some cases. It's just - it's astounding that the university is not taking action to keep students safe."

She said in light of the new restrictions that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry introduced on Friday because of the threat of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, UBC should be taking a university-wide approach to exam cancellations, rather than leaving it to individual faculty and students to decide how to proceed.

"Yes, I understand (the new restrictions) don't explicitly apply to post-secondary institutions, but again, UBC needs to go above and beyond these (public health officer) guidelines and recommendations and keep students safe," Bhangu said. "It shouldn't be that some students are still at risk while others are not."

For his part, Heinrich said UBC feels it has "gone above and beyond" provincial recommendations in its on-campus safety protocols this year. He told CTV News the university communicates regularly with public health officials.

"They have made it very clear to us, throughout this process - including very recently relating to exams - that the learning environments that we are providing are safe for our students," Heinrich said.

He said the University of Victoria's decision to cancel in-person exams was made in a different public health context.

In that case, officials said two off-campus parties led to outbreaks of both the Delta and Omicron variants among students.

“Public Health has confirmed that cases among staff, students and faculty at UBC have been lower than in surrounding communities, and when cases do occur, the vast majority of acquisition is in homes and social settings,” Heinrich said in his statement.

However, Dr. Brian Conway with the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre called it “very unfair” to put the onus on students to make decisions to defer their exams.

“Guidelines are changing on a daily basis in the era of Omicron,” Conway said.

“Would they think of reducing capacity (during exams)?” Conway suggested. “Would they think of keeping the groups much smaller (or) changing the locale?”

B.C.'s new restrictions came into effect on Monday.

They include a 50-per-cent capacity limit on venues that hold more than 1,000 people, a ban on youth and adult sports tournaments over the winter holiday period, and the cancellation of all New Year's Eve parties. Top Stories

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