This message was originally sent to the UWaterloo Community by Vivek Goel, President and Vice-Chancellor, and James W. E. Rush, Vice-President, Academic and Provost.
We recently communicated the University’s intention to gradually transition to full in-person experiences with most in-person instruction starting on Monday, February 7.
Ontario’s decision to open more of the province starting today is supported by the Chief Medical Officer of Health as well as Waterloo Region’s Medical Officer of Health. Changes to Ontario’s regulations mean across many sectors, people are returning to work and activities gradually through February to mid-March. The evidence from Ontario’s Science table shows now that we are past the peak of Omicron transmission based on daily case counts, test positivity, the reproduction number and wastewater data. Hospital and ICU admissions for COVID-19 are plateauing and starting to trend down.
We have additional reasons for confidence in our own plan—underpinned by the fact that more than 99 per cent of people who come to the University to live, work and learn are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And, while the virus circulates our community, healthy adults who are vaccinated and follow public health advice are very well protected from its more serious consequences. As figures six and seven show in this report from Ontario Public Health, vaccinated individuals and those under 60 years now face very low risks of severe illness.
From letters, meetings, phone calls and our recent employee survey, however, it is clear many among our community have concerns over this transition. We have endeavoured from the very beginning of the pandemic to make clear our goal is to return to more in-person experiences as soon as the public health conditions allow. We believe that time is finally here.
We recognize that this time brings a new set of challenges. The worries we hear from students, faculty and staff are understandable. In the coming days and weeks, we will continue to do our best to address these concerns—including a President’s Forum on Wednesday in which we will speak in greater detail about ventilation improvements, vaccination, and our overall direction in the coming days and weeks.
In the meantime, we want to keep the discussion open around a few of the key concerns we have heard since we announced our plan to return to in-person experiences on February 7.
There have been calls of the University to provide N95 or KN95 masks to our community who need to come to our campuses. We have based our current approach for face-coverings on the latest guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada and Public Health Ontario for general, non-healthcare settings. As the memo from the Director of Safety made clear, the University has appropriate options for face coverings available centrally at no cost to units for employees performing essential in-person work (including teaching).
In most circumstances at the University, wearing masks that fit well, have multiple layers, including at least 2 layers of breathable tightly woven fabric, such as cotton and an effective middle filter layer are very effective in preventing the transmission of COVID-19. The University will be providing all employees that need to work on campus with masks that meet these criteria.
We will continue to provide N95 masks to individuals in roles that face specific risks of transmission of COVID-19 through approval and fit testing in the Safety Office.
Nevertheless, we recognize that many of you have concerns about the availability of N95 or KN95 masks. We face ongoing supply chain issues which are limiting the availability of these masks. We are pursuing options to obtain N95 or KN95 masks and we will provide them on a limited basis for those that request them when available.
Rapid antigen tests
Just as the supply chain for masks is experiencing issues, Ontario is experiencing a short-term, temporary disruption to its regular supply schedule of Rapid Antigen Tests due to global supply chain constraints. The province is working to ensure that in the short term, rapid antigen tests are available and prioritized for our most vulnerable sectors.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health has advised that rapid testing should be used where risk of transmission is highest. Furthermore, rapid tests are most useful when used serially – requiring very high numbers of tests to be deployed for any program to be effective in detecting COVID-19.
On campus, we therefore are prioritizing deployment of the available tests to those in the highest risk settings where other measures to mitigate the risk of transmission of COVID-19 cannot be followed. We must also ensure that tests are available for the small number of students and employees for whom we have granted accommodations to the proof of vaccination mandate. I want to remind you, though, that significantly more than 99 per cent of everyone coming to live, learn and work on campus has provided proof of being fully vaccinated.
When the supply of tests improves, we will make them more available to our community including to those who are teaching in-person.
We believe it is important to monitor and assess whether COVID-19 booster shots should become part of our mandatory proof of vaccination program, and we continue to do so. We will follow guidance, as we have done throughout the pandemic, from government and public health officials on this issue.
The Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health (OCMOH) instructions of October 5, 2021, requiring a vaccine mandate are still in effect, but the definition of fully vaccinated has not changed to include a third dose. We understand that the provincial and federal governments and the OCMOH are closely monitoring the relevant data and evidence and will continue to advise the PSE sector on this issue.
Vaccination remains the most important tool to protect individuals from severe disease. We continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to get a booster shot as soon as possible. This will ensure you each have the best protection and we are ready as a community if and when a third dose becomes a part of the definition of fully vaccinated. If you need to book a booster dose you can do so with Health Services and there are many online resources to help you find available appointments such as the Region of Waterloo, Vaccine Ontario or Vaccine Hunters.
Monitoring our ventilation systems has been a priority for our central plant teams since the very early stages of the pandemic. Very early in the pandemic, teams responsible for our physical environment put measures in place to maximise air exchange rates in all our buildings, and to ensure that air filtration in all buildings meets the current standards (MERV13) recommended by professional bodies such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. These filters are the highest filter rating we can deploy without affecting airflow.
We are also operating the ventilation systems at their maximum capacity for the environmental conditions and are not limiting energy use for the systems. In practical terms, we have implemented all recommendations for use of the air systems that are possible without fully replacing our ventilation infrastructure.
We are extremely grateful for the work teams completed last year to ready our buildings for a return to more normal levels of occupancy while maximising the measures we can take to protect occupants. This work happened well ahead of that which has happened more recently in other institutions and sectors in maximising filtration, ventilation and air exchange rates in our spaces.
We continue to monitor air quality and ventilation. Recently, we ordered more than 300 HEPA filter units for deployment in our spaces. We will distribute these units in spaces across the campus as they arrive.
We have also assessed air exchange rates in our classrooms. There is no threshold of ventilation rates recommended by Public Health Agency of Canada or any other professional body in the context of COVID-19. Our assessment utilizes a combination of room sizes, capacities, and air exchange rates.
While our assessment is that all our classrooms are ready for use, out of an abundance of caution, we will rebook some classroom spaces that have fewer than four air exchanges per hour to take advantage of spare capacity in classrooms with greater rates of air exchange. We will use this opportunity to further evaluate these classrooms. Faculties will be contacting the department heads of affected courses to discuss alternative scheduling arrangements and associated communications.
In light of the evolving understanding of transmission of the SARS-CoV2 virus and the emergence of the Omicron variant we will continue to assess and evaluate the air quality of our indoor spaces and are committed to reporting the results to the community. You can keep up to date on our ventilation strategy on a new page on our COVID-19 information website.
Please bear in mind that ventilation is just one measure of protection in our layered strategy where all individuals in a classroom wear a mask, instructors maintain distance from students while teaching, as well as campus vaccination requirements and daily screening.
Other health and safety measures are covered in detail in a revised and updated guide on the COVID-19 information website.
Communication and engagement
In a letter to administration, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo suggested that faculty be granted autonomy to consult with their students and to decide whether their courses should continue online or in-person. In our response, we respectfully disagreed. We believe a return is not only appropriate but an obligation to our students—the vast majority of whom chose this university for the experiences only in-person learning can provide.
We also need to ensure that the decisions we take are equitable for our entire student population. The impacts of remote learning are disproportionately felt by the least advantaged.
While faculty may wish to consult with students about their preferences to understand their needs and how to address their concerns, the decision for whether courses originally scheduled to be taught in-person must be made by appropriate University officers. This is to ensure that the overall student and program level needs are considered in the decision process.
This approach is also a necessity born of the pandemic, which has frequently required us to make decisions under a rapidly changing set of circumstances. Timelines and procedures for normal long-term planning – where we can consult very broadly in open forum discussion and where planning decisions can be widely known before coming effective – are not well suited to decision-making in this environment.
Where conditions have allowed, we have opted to communicate our decisions as early as possible and with clarity on when the next decision must be made. We hope that this approach provides time for appropriate faculty-level planning and debate to take place.
We are mindful of the significant pressure and negative effects that this latest lock down – and the decision to return to in-person experiences – is having on the physical and mental health of so many of us. In deciding to return to in-person experience in February we are striving to meet the needs of our students to have a meaningful university experience.
We acknowledge that we can always do more to engage with you to ensure that communication and decision-making is clear and meets the needs of our community. We are grateful for your patience and understanding as we seek to get back to safe and vibrant in-person experiences for everyone at Waterloo, and we look forward to continuing this dialogue in the days and weeks ahead.