Teaching assistants have asked UBC to increase COVID-19 safety precautions ahead of Feb. 7 return to campus

Ahead of the Feb. 7 return-to-campus date, the TA union sent an email to UBC calling for more COVID-19 preventative measures to protect its members.

On February 3, CUPE 2278, the union representing all teaching assistants at UBC, emailed the university’s human resources office based on the results of a short survey it sent to members asking if they were comfortable with returning to in-person teaching. The survey received 104 responses.

The email addressed two overarching concerns: the perceived lack of discussion of the needs and risks associated with traveling to campus and the lack of access to PPE, including N95 masks.

Additionally, about two-thirds of the 104 respondents did not feel entirely comfortable returning to campus, according to Audrey Pearson, president of CUPE 2278 and a doctoral candidate in philosophy at UBC.

On January 31, a group of sixteen political science technical assistants sent a separate letter to the department asking for new preventive measures against COVID-19, which also included a call for the supply of more resistant masks, as well as the creation of hybrid options for tutorials. and making sure classrooms had enough space to get away from others.

The department deferred the letter to UBC because any changes would have to be made university-wide.

Pearson said the union was aware of the actions of the political science technical assistants. She said the union’s subsequent investigation and email “was prompted by the concerns of a few members”.

“After hearing from these members, we wanted to conduct a survey to deepen our understanding of the situation so that we could represent our members’ concerns to the university.”

Pearson said UBC responded to CUPE 2278’s email on Feb. 4. The university noted that it did not return to campus as soon as other universities did, and the university acknowledged the challenge of having to commute.

The university said it was following a consultation with “the provincial health officer and health authorities regarding the level of risk presented by our planned return to campus,” according to a union memo sent to its members. UBC’s email also referred the union to the TransLink page on COVID-19 safety.

As for the masks, the email from UBC stated that they would not be supplying N95s, but rather the highest level of medical grade masks. This decision was consistent with assessments conducted by UBC’s occupational health and safety team.

Pearson found it helpful to hear clarification from UBC, but remains unsure of the extent to which it reassured union members. She said she expects there to be a range of reactions.

The union is considering procuring N95s itself, according to Pearson.

On that note, she adds “if that’s what you need to wear to be safe on the job, then I think your employer should provide it, it shouldn’t be an out-of-pocket expense.”

When asked if UBC plans to increase the measures further, or if it plans to do so before the TA union contacts it, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, said the university had “always put the safety and security of our students, faculty and staff first.

“We have a rapid test program for people who have refused to download [their vaccination status] or indicate that they are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated. We provide rapid tests on a weekly basis and we provide symptomatic people with rapid test kits,” he said.

Ramsey said UBC has also been distributing 1.2 million National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved masks since Feb. 7.

He added that these collective “layers of protections” are “extremely difficult to find anywhere other than UBC” and “are beyond those requested or required under provincial health guidelines.”

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Susan W. Lloyd