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Institutional responsibility to prepare for COVID-19 cases on campus

Included in Discovery: Atlantic Education & the Law – Issue 07


Kate Jurgens

Since returning to class in September amidst the uncertainty of the COVID-19 global pandemic, students and faculty alike in classrooms, on campus, in residence, and in the workplace have learned to adapt to what has become the “new norm.”

It is not enough for institutions to rely on provincial health directives and provincial contact tracing measures. If and when a student, staff, or faculty member tests positive for the virus, the university must be prepared to take action. Arguably, the only way to efficiently respond is to have a policy prepared and in place when this occurs. Provincial guidance invites institutional response. In light of this, institutions should take it upon themselves to implement policies addressing how to handle positive COVID-19 tests so that, if and when positive tests arise on campus, swift action is taken to isolate those affected. This will allow institutions to remain open for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic while also ensuring minimal spread.

As we know, a key requirement for reducing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission is reducing the number of close contact encounters. Reductions can be achieved through social distancing, campus density reductions, and wearing non-medical masks when social distancing cannot be achieved. While this will lead to a reduction in case numbers, positive COVID-19 tests amongst student populations are inevitable. In light of this, how can educational institutions aim to ensure the safety of staff and students while also attempting to remain open for business?

Ensuring the safety of students and staff

While government guidance invites institutional response to suspected cases, many institutions have not implemented policies governing what will happen in the event that a member of their community tests positive. Provincial guidelines¹ encourage or require (depending on the province) close contacts of those who have tested positive to self-isolate before public health becomes involved in contact tracing. If a teacher or professor reports COVID-19 symptoms, there is an immediate and cogent risk to all students in their classes. Given provincial guidance, waiting for public health to contact those who may have been exposed if and when there is a diagnosis is problematic.

These idiosyncrasies have not been addressed by many institutions. Instead of creating policies to further the objectives of public health officials, institutions are deferring to public health in reliance of their services for contact tracing as appropriate.

Implementing such policies will lead to swift, institution-specific reactions that will help to curb the spread of COVID-19 and allow such institutions to remain open for the remainder of the pandemic whilst at the same time ensuring the safety of the campus population.

Students must play a leading role in protecting their health

Student codes of conduct are another important way to curb the spread of COVID-19. In recent months we have seen many institutions implement or adapt student codes of conduct dealing directly with COVID-19 from the student perspective. These codes act to monitor and control student behaviour and in doing so create a contractual relationship between students and the institution outlining what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

In an effort to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases on campus and to maintain a safe environment for students, these institutions, through student codes of conduct and other COVID-19 related policies, can make clear that students share in the responsibility of keeping their community (and beyond) safe.

Failure to abide by the various provincial COVID-19 community health and safety requirements may be a violation of the code of conduct. For example, if students choose to have a party which violates the limits on social gatherings or they choose not to wear a mask in violation of provincial guidelines, the code of conduct can be used in order to discipline the students, through suspension or otherwise.

Violations can be investigated and adjudicated, resulting in residence dismissal, suspension, or financial penalties. Further, incidents and behavioural breaches can be forwarded to the RCMP for possible charges under the provincial health protection legislation.

Commitment to community wellness

Several Canadian universities have implemented student codes of conduct specific to COVID-19 or have created addendums to their existing codes of conduct in recent months. One notable feature that these policies seem to have in common is their commitment to community wellness. In general, students on and off campus are asked to review campus procedures daily and to take all necessary steps to protect others by following the directives based on self-assessment. As we are all aware, daily check-ins are crucially important during this pandemic, as COVID-related public health requirements seem to change on an almost daily basis.

Community wellness checklists often contain some combination of the following points:

  1. Monitor your health daily
  2. Ensure you are symptom-free prior to accessing campus
  3. Practise proper hygiene
  4. Maintain proper social distancing
  5. Wear a non-medical mask (depending on the jurisdiction and institution)
  6. Limit interactions on and off campus

Conclusion

It is not enough for institutions to rely on provincial health directives and provincial contact tracing measures. If and when a student, staff, or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19, the institution must be prepared to take action. Arguably, the only way to efficiently respond is to have an institution-specific policy prepared and in place when this occurs.

Waiting for public health to contact those who may have been exposed if and when there is a diagnosis is problematic.

Institutions should take it upon themselves to implement policies addressing how to handle positive COVID-19 tests. This will ultimately allow such institutions to remain operational while the COVID-19 pandemic remains present in our lives, while also ensuring minimal spread.

Although burdensome, implementing policies that align with public health measures focusing on contact tracing, self-reporting, self-isolating and testing if and when a student shows symptoms of COVID-19 is something that all educational institutions should seriously consider as we move into the winter months.


¹ Nova Scotia

Prince Edward Island

New Brunswick

Newfoundland and Labrador

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