MUN’s chief risk officer says decision to return to in-person classes based on public health guidance

Memorial University students, faculty and staff are heading back to in-person classes on Jan. 31, but student and faculty representatives say the plan fails to ensure student and instructor safety.

On Wednesday, the university announced most classes would resume in-person instruction, including classes on the St. John’s campus with fewer than 100 students, all classes at the Marine Institute, and most classes at the Grenfell campus, depending on occupancy.

  • N.L. students, teachers returning to the classroom Tuesday

Kat McLaughlin, the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students in Newfoundland and Labrador, said MUN’s announcement lacked details on how the university plans to ensure student and faculty safety given the prevalence of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

“I think myself and a lot of students, faculty, families, they’re all very, very concerned. They’re very scared, and I think one of the largest parts of that fear is the lack of information,” McLaughlin told CBC News.

Josh Lepawsky, president of the Memorial University Faculty Association and a professor in the geography department, agreed.

“The overwhelming response so far is faculty are upset, I would say even angry,” he said. “There also is a great deal of confusion because of the very mixed messaging that faculty have been receiving from university administration.”

“It’s very clear that the planning is happening on the fly, despite having had two years now to have solid planning in place.”

Lepawsky said faculty want to go back to in-person classes, but he would have preferred a hybrid approach that would see some activities resume on campus while others remain online.

“We are constantly Ping-Ponging back and forth between these two all-or-nothing responses when we could have planned in such a way where there … would be much more nuance to the response,” he said.

Balancing academics with safety

MUN chief risk officer Greg McDougall said the decision to return to on-campus classes was made in conjunction with public health guidelines. University administration is aware of the mixed reaction to the plan, he said, but returning to campus is necessary to ensure academic integrity.

“This is our plan going forward. That’s based on what we need for students, what we need for the act for academic quality and based on our safety controls in place.” 

Greg McDougall, Memorial University’s chief risk officer, says safety protocols like masks, vaccines and rapid tests will help ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

In a post on the MUN Gazette, the university pointed to health and safety measures such as its mask mandate and vaccine mandate as parts of its safety strategy. McDougall said the university is also implementing rapid testing in high-risk areas like on-campus residences.

“We feel that we are one of the safest environments for learning or as safe as any school,” he said.

McLaughlin said those protocols don’t do enough to assuage the fears of students and faculty who can’t get COVID-19 because they’re immunocompromised or for other reasons.

“Students who are immunocompromised right now really don’t feel valued by their university. They don’t feel protected and they don’t feel heard,” she said.

Students who are immunocompromised right now really don’t feel valued by their university. They don’t feel protected and they don’t feel heard.- Kat McLaughlin

The university encouraged students to get in touch with their academic advisors if they need to change their courses because they don’t want to return to campus, but McLaughlin noted the deadline to drop a course and receive a full tuition refund was Thursday.

CBC News has asked the university if there are plans to further accommodate students who were not able to switch their courses by the deadline.

Plan needs more detail: students, faculty

According to both McLaughlin and Lapawsky, one of main deficiencies of the plan is the lack of guidance for students and faculty who have symptoms or who test positive for COVID-19.

McDougall said faculty will be responsible for accommodating students who get sick and have to self-isolate. He said MUN chose not to enact a university-wide policy in order to ensure that instructors are able to dictate how they deliver courses, but faculty are asked to be flexible.

“It’s a lot of empathy, it’s a lot of understanding and it’s a lot of working with students and ultimately realizing that students are the reason that we are a university,” he said.

Kat McLaughlin, the provincial chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, says the university needs to do more to ensure students who get COVID-19 are not left behind. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

McLaughlin said that policy rings hollow.

“I think it’s really unfair to the faculty and it leaves the students with no commitment to being accommodated,” she said.

“That is where I think a lot of students are going to fall through the cracks.”

Lepawsky said faculty have not been given much more information than what is publicly available from public health and on the university website.

“There seems to be a real lack of subtlety in the planning, despite the fact that the university has all of the expertise internally that it needs to have worked through these kinds of issues over the last two years.”

McDougall said university administration is trying to get further information about the plan out as quickly as possible.

“I am guessing that there will be important communications almost every single day until the end of January.”

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By MD Abdullah

Abdullah is a former educator, lifelong money nerd, and a Plutus Award-winning freelance writer who specializes in the scientific research behind irrational money behaviors. Her background in education allows her to make complex financial topics relatable and easily understood by the layperson. She is the author of four books, including End Financial Stress Now and The Five Years Before You Retire.

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