Open Letter regarding program delivery and a safe and effective learning environment

Dear Dan, Priyanka, Jackson and Marianne,

Thank you for your recent letter. In taking time to read and reflect on your correspondence it is clear we share many similar goals and values for the Fall 2021 semester including, and most importantly, that we take action to keep our students, faculty and staff safe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a lot at us and forced us to make many adjustments over the past 18 months. The Universities of Lethbridge, Calgary and Alberta were the first in the province to transition away from in-person activities at the outset of the pandemic, with an initial decision communicated in the middle of the night following a lengthy midnight meeting with my colleagues. That our faculty and staff were able to act so quickly, and appropriately, is something with which we take great pride. Subsequently moving to a remote learning and working environment in a matter of days was a huge challenge – and one we were able to overcome.

The ever-changing nature of the pandemic will continue to require adjustments to how we operate. The emergence of the Delta variant has demanded action and we have responded.  The University continues to follow all public health mandates and has implemented several measures that exceed those currently in place in our province. For example, masking is required (not optional) on campus in public areas with few exceptions, and all employees and students must have verified weekly testing or attest to being fully vaccinated. Attestation will be subject to random verification. All individuals demonstrating symptoms or who test positive for COVID 19 are required to remain off campus. These measures will continue through the end of the semester, regardless of whether the Province of Alberta makes any further changes to its public health measures during this time. The University also continues its commitment to routine cleaning and has made changes to campus ventilation systems, all of which meet COVID-19 ASHRAE recommendations. The full COVID-19 Safety Plan can be found and reviewed here. We understand that further adjustment may be necessary, and we will be ready to respond.

Your letter rightly highlights some of the many challenges we will face in returning to in-person learning – from handling exemption requests in ways that continue to protect all members of our community to making accommodations for immunocompromised, isolating, or ill students and staff. Facilitating the appropriate arrangements to satisfy these requests will, as you note, require flexibility and compassion and we have been developing a robust set of FAQs that explain the measures through which we can meet this necessity. The FAQs are driven by the questions we have been receiving from the campus community, as well as questions posed and discussed by the Health and Safety Advisory Committee which has representation from all our employee groups and undergraduate and graduate students. Information on many of the questions you reference within your letter can be found here. The health and safety of our campus community is our top priority and as a result the FAQs provide information consistent with and in support of our Health and Safety Plan.

Planning for the pandemic may have begun in better times, but our process has been fluid throughout. We will not be fully in-person. We have adjusted in instances where the situation demanded. The percentage of in-person classes sits closer to 89 per cent – rather than being “fully in-person”.

Recently, the University polled its student body to determine the vaccination rate amongst this critical group and 92 per cent of respondents indicated they will be fully vaccinated at the start of the semester. The number of entrants in the faculty and staff portion of our It’s Worth A Shot! campaign demonstrates a similar commitment to being vaccinated. We continue to strongly encourage all members of the campus community to be vaccinated as this is the best way we can protect each other. As such, we will be hosting vaccination clinics on campus on September 20 and 21.

Lastly, I wish to directly address your call that “the method of teaching and safety” be decided “at the level of the classroom”. The University strongly supports the academic freedom of its faculty members to make pedagogical choices on how and what to teach based generally within the modality already identified to students through the timetable. Determining the overall registration options (for example, on-line or in person) for a course is the responsibility of Deans’ Offices and the Provost as they consider and consult on a broad range of program, faculty, and undergraduate and graduate student needs.  Further, safety decisions depend on coordinated efforts and cannot be left to a series of individual choices. They must be imbedded within well-established assessment strategies under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Again, thank you for your letter. To me, it demonstrates our shared value in ensuring our students and staff have a safe and meaningful Fall 2021 semester.


Mike Mahon