Senate Summed Up: Vancouver Senate urges UBC to consider a vaccine mandate, votes against online/in person class flexibility

At a special UBC Vancouver Senate meeting on September 10, senators voted to urge UBC to institute a full vaccine requirement for people accessing on-campus activities and against a motion that would have affirmed faculty flexibility to deliver courses online or in person.

The first motion — which calls on President Santa Ono and the Board of Governors to require vaccines for students, staff and faculty attending on-campus activities — passed with 31 in favour and 24 against. It falls short of an outright vaccine mandate, however, leaving the decision up to Ono and the Board instead.

Dr. C.W. (Toph) Marshall introduced the first motion, saying that he felt UBC has not been a leader in addressing COVID-19 recently. He spoke of his mother, whom he lost to COVID-19, and his child, who is not yet old enough to be vaccinated.

“As of Monday, a passport is going to be required for me to go into a movie theatre or a restaurant, and not go into my classroom,” Marshall said. “I do not know how a movie theatre is epidemiologically different from a lecture hall.”

“I urge you please, please to accept the stronger mandate.”

Senators heard from three medical health professionals — Dr. Dan Coombs, a member of the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group; Dr. David Patrick, a professor in the School of Population and Public Health; and Dr. Alex Choi, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health — ahead of the vote.

With the combination of high vaccination rates, the vaccination and rapid testing rules at UBC, the BC Vaccine Card and the mask mandate, all three of the experts recommended against the full vaccine requirement, mainly because they all stated that a mandate would have a negligible impact on the protection that already exists.

Coombs stated that in the absence of any protection measures, an infected person would likely infect eight other people at UBC. If 90 per cent of people are vaccinated, that brings it down to two; with masks, it's brought down to under one.

However, Coombs and Patrick agreed that instructors should be wearing masks in class, and Coombs added that there could be a larger role for asymptomatic testing of close contacts.

Choi said Vancouver Coastal Health is confident the vaccination rate at UBC is well above 90 per cent, even saying that the vaccination rate on campus could be as high as 98 per cent — but that may be leaving out those who are unvaccinated who chose not to disclose.

On the case against a vaccine mandate, Patrick and Choi spoke of the potential harms of a such a mandate.

“In public health, we have an ethical obligation to go with the least restrictive but effective means to achieve a goal,” Patrick said.

Choi also emphasized the potential barriers a vaccine mandate would have on access to education. Despite the experts’ opinions, senators voted in favour of the mandate.

The second motion sought to “[affirm] the need for flexibility for moving individual courses ... on and off line this year according to pedagogical needs until October 22.” This move would have been subject to approval from deans or department heads and directors.

There was a lengthy discussion before the final vote in which 35 senators voted against the measure and 22 voted in favour.

Supporters — largely students and a few faculty members — said the motion should pass because students support its spirit.

“The [AMS] had conducted a return to campus survey in which, when students were asked about their preferred mode of delivery, 65 per cent of the students actually said they were in favour of the hybrid model,” student senator and AMS VP Academic & University Affairs Eshana Bhangu said.

Those in favour of the motion also said the October 22 timeline would allow international students who are unable to return to Canada due to travel restrictions to make it to campus.

Opponents of the measure said its language was unclear, that it was unnecessary since profs can already decide how to teach their courses and that accommodations have already been made for international students abroad.

Many deans also seemed to believe that, if passed, the motion would mean that most classes would go online.

“We do know that the majority of students are already here on campus and or will be arriving shortly. We also know that they have done that at a tremendous personal cost. They have left their jobs, they have left their family,” said Dean of Applied Science James Olson.

Marshall, who supported the motion, called out these deans for knowingly making misleading statements on the motion’s purpose.

“We are not talking about another term online, and the speakers who had spoken so far against this motion know that,” he said.