By Lethbridge Herald on September 10, 2021.
The U of L is facing a COVID crisis. But there’s still time to turn things around.
Classes resumed at the University of Lethbridge. Students are back on campus. Professors are back at the blackboards. It feels great to begin the new academic year.
But it is also dangerous.
Most of our students belong to an age group whose average vaccination rate is less than 60 per cent provincially.Â
Our professors, instructors, and many of our students, like adults everywhere, have children who cannot be vaccinated. They have elderly parents who must be protected. In many cases, they have health concerns of their own.
And we are in the middle of a COVID “fourth wave.” A wave that looks every bit as bad as anything that came before. Bad enough that the Kenney government had to flip-flop on removing all COVID restrictions.
Given all this, here are some of the things we now know about COVID in the classroom:
The risk of COVID rises when you crowd large groups of people indoors.Â
Successful online learning takes planning and preparation.Â
Waiting to act until COVID rates start to rise only makes matters worse.
You can only have a “best summer ever” – or a best school-year possible – if you also plan for what happens should things turn out worse than you hoped.
Unfortunately, the University of Lethbridge appears to have forgotten these crucial lessons. Despite the rising COVID wave, the U of L is planning to teach 90 per cent of its courses in person this semester. Some universities in other provinces are offering much lower percentages, despite lower case counts and stricter regulations.
Of course, when the vaccines began to roll out last February, everybody hoped that things might be different this fall.Â
But the university also made a promise to its students then that it could not possibly guarantee: that they would be welcomed back this fall, in person, to full classes, with no half-measures. All or nothing.
Unlike some universities, this meant that we would not put our big classes online.Â
Unlike some universities, this meant that we would not ask professors and instructors to prepare online versions of their courses as a backup.Â
Unlike some other universities, this meant we would fill our classrooms to maximum capacity, leaving no flexibility in case the numbers started to rise.
The result is what you might think. As we enter the new semester, we have students already sick with COVID. Professors and instructors are already being asked if they can teach the same class in-person and virtually. It may only be a matter of time until we are forced to switch to fully online again. Just like we did eighteen months ago at the beginning of the pandemic, when there were no vaccines and nobody knew what to expect.
This approach is bad for our students. It is bad for the faculty and staff. It is bad for the small businesses and citizens of Lethbridge.
But it is not too late to change. Even at this late date, there are things we can do to avoid repeating mistakes we made more than a year ago, when we didn’t know any better.
Institute a vaccine mandate. Require all faculty, students, and staff to demonstrate that they are helping to keep our community safe or have a valid exemption.
Recognise that not all classes are equally risky. Let’s see about moving the biggest classes online.
Let our medium and small-sized classes use that space to spread out.
Encourage professors and instructors to develop plans for online instruction whenever it makes sense. Leave in-person for those classes and labs where it is most needed.
Let those who know the most about their students and subjects make the decision about what is best in the classroom. Only they can know when the number of absent students or the difficulty of the material means that “in-person” means “poor quality.”
But above all, let’s do everything we can to avoid the panicked “pivot” we were forced to make in March 2020. Eighteen months later, there is no excuse for not having a transparent, well-thought-out “Plan B” for the semester, shared with students, faculty, and staff alike.
There is still time for the university to work with students, faculty, staff, and the citizens of Lethbridge to ensure our students have the best and safest possible academic year, even in the “fourth wave.”Â
The University community is standing by, ready to help.Â
Dan O’Donnell is president of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA). The opinions expressed in this article are his own.