The Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta (AASUA) has requested that the University of Alberta reinstate the indoor mask mandate.
The association also called for the university to provide evidence-based criteria under which a mask policy can be modified or suspended. During the association’s annual general meeting on November 18, members voted in favour of the motions to make the requests to the university.
The U of A dropped the mask mandate on March 16, however, continues to recommend masking in instructional spaces, indoor high-traffic areas, and on public transit. The requests are coming during this year’s cold and flu season, which, based on current data, is predicted to be worse than previous years.
On November 19, AASUA President Gordon Swaters sent a letter to the university with the association’s requests. The letter was addressed to Bill Flanagan, U of A president, and Kate Chisholm, the Board of Governors chair.
Swaters said the association is asking the university administration “to become partners” in protecting the U of A community. He received notification from the president’s office that they are reviewing the letter.
“The pandemic from our viewpoint is not over, and other respiratory illnesses like [respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)] and the flu are spreading,” Swaters said. “We can’t go backwards now. We can’t give up all the hard fought gains we have had to try to make this a healthy learning environment.”
Members of the association have noticed a lot of sickness, according to Swaters.
“We’re seeing a lot of coughing, and we’re not saying that’s all COVID-19, or the flu, or RSV — but we’re seeing people sick.”
While the association acknowledges it is an “inconvenience for some to wear a mask,” the “good that’s given to the majority is sufficient” enough to reinstate the mask mandate. Swaters said the mask mandate will result in protecting the larger community.
“If we protect ourselves here at the [U of A] … we’re protecting each other from when we go out into the larger community — [from infecting] the people we love and care for.”
Swaters said the mask mandate is also an issue related to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
”We feel we must do everything in our power to protect staff and students who are potentially immunocompromised.” He added that some academic staff are not securely employed and do not have health benefits to support them when sick.
When asked whether the provincial government will have an influence on the U of A’s decision to reinstate the mask mandate, Swaters said that the government understands the U of A has institutional autonomy.
“The previous remarks have been focused on K-12. They have not been focused on the [post-secondary education] sector,” Swaters said. “My guess is that if the institutions felt the necessity to introduce a mask mandate, [Premier Smith] understands … that they actually have the institutional autonomy to do just that.”
Swaters doubts that there would be any “substantial political blowback” if the U of A were to implement a mask mandate.
“Whether the [U of A] would be comfortable using its institutional autonomy, to introduce [a mask mandate], well, that remains to be seen.”
In a comment, the university said it is following public health guidance for Alberta.
“The university’s public health response team is monitoring the public health situation in our communities and the early rise in seasonal infections in Alberta, such as influenza, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and COVID-19. We will maintain guiding safety measures accordingly based on the best advice available,” the statement read.