VICTORIA -- While the University of Victoria is preparing for students to return to full-time classes in the fall of 2021, faculty members are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

More than 20,000 students will again walk the halls and sit in classrooms at the university. The post secondary institution’s instructors say they want to resume classes, but are looking for guidance from provincial health authorities to ensure they can return safely.

“We did a survey and a significant number of our members are concerned,” said UVic history professor and faculty association president Dr. Lynne Marks. “If everyone has two doses of the vaccine by early August, that would be great, but there are still questions raised in that context.”

Marks says she and the 860 members of the association that she represents know that not everyone returning to UVic will choose to be vaccinated.

“The (B.C.) government and the university have been clear that they will not require anyone, students or employees, to be vaccinated,” said Marks. “So what does that mean in terms of achieving herd immunity?”

She said large post-secondary institutions like UVic have big classrooms of as many as 300 students, and therefore can’t be viewed through the same lens as students in kindergarten through Grade 12.

“Our students don’t even have separate desks,” said Marks. “They are crammed together … For first- and second-year students, there are big labs where people are moving around.”

Marks says there are also concerns that the virus may spread when students are in hallways when they leave class. Higher infection rates associated with COVID-19 variants are also a concern for faculty, she said.

When Marks and other union leaders and university administrators met with provincial health officials recently, she says, the question of mask-mandates was raised.

“There was not clarity about that, so I’m concerned that the university has to take direction from the government,” said Marks. “Our members are concerned there’s not autonomy for universities and for faculty who may want to mandate masks for students.”

The faculty association is also concerned about the ventilation in some classrooms. Marks acknowledges that the newer buildings on campus have good air handling capabilities, but says some of the older buildings may lack sufficient airflow.

“As one person who may have to teach 300 students said to me, ‘If 20 per cent of my students are not vaccinated and we’re in one of the old classrooms, that doesn’t feel safe to me,” and I would have to agree,” said Marks. “The question of ventilation is one we are hearing a lot and the government is not putting money into upgrading ventilation systems.”

Marks says members of the faculty association would like the ability to mandate the use of masks in their classrooms. She says she would like to see more autonomy for universities so instructors can make those critical health choices.

“I think its great that Dr. Bonnie Henry is optimistic (about the return to classes) and I hope she is right, but it seems to me her plan is based on K-to-12 assumptions,” said Marks. “I think providing more flexibility for students and faculty at a university level would be better.”

Marks notes that accommodations are made for students and faculty who have specific health concerns, but she questions how high the bar is set to successfully be accommodated for health reasons. She says with current border closures preventing international students from attending in-person classes, she wonders why the online-learning accommodations that are being made for them could be extended to everyone.

“My members feel there needs to be more recognition that there are still real concerns and there needs to be more flexibility from the government,” said Marks. “There needs to be more flexibility for universities so that people feel safe coming back in all different circumstances.”