UMFA raises concerns over COVID-19 practices

Faculty association letter draws attention to needed COVID-19 policy revisions

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) continues to be concerned with the university’s health and safety practices surrounding SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19.

The association sent U of M president Michael Benarroch a letter on July 17 outlining its concerns and requests for revising the university’s health and safety measures for the fall 2023 semester.

Concerns from UMFA began when the president’s office sent an email to employees and students on April 24 announcing that the mandatory masking protocols would end when the summer term began on the first of May.

The letter highlights the importance of masking in spaces where faculty members or students who are immunocompromised are at risk.

UMFA president Orvie Dingwall noted that SARS-CoV-2 acts differently during summer and winter. Dingwall said the association’s priority is that “everyone is safe in their working and learning environments” while not letting go of the lessons learned throughout the lockdowns about the “real problems in our society.”

In its letter, UMFA urged the university to allow Student Accessibility Services to mandate mask wearing in locations around campus where a faculty member or student has applied. That way, it can accommodate any immunocompromised individual, in addition to “the laboratories, classrooms and office spaces over which [UMFA members] have direct control while performing their university duties.”

“It is already a societal norm to say, ‘Okay, someone in this space has a severe reaction [to peanuts], we’re going to look out for them, and we’re not going to have peanuts in this space,’” said Dingwall. The same should go for a person who needs masking, she continued.

Additionally, the letter suggests the administration should create web pages where anyone is able to see results and locations of air quality testing, in detailing UMFA’s concern over building ventilation across all U of M campuses.

While Dingwall believes the university has been consistent in meeting the faculty association’s requests for mask availability and upholding prior mask mandates, it hasn’t been “as good about being transparent with the information on the monitoring of air quality.”

Dingwall stated that new standards published during the pandemic should be what the university is testing against. The letter also brings up concerns that testing is being conducted using “flawed and inappropriate” techniques.

The standards that Dingwall and the rest of UMFA are aware of and believe the U of M should follow come from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Of the many standards and guidelines that ASHRAE publishes, UMFA would like to see the university adopt ASHRAE Standard 241-2023 concerning the control of infectious aerosols.

In a statement found on the U of M’s COVID-19 Health and Safety web page, the university said that, as of April 21 this year, all 140 of the campus’s oldest and frequented buildings meet ASHRAE’s “standards in optimal conditions.” Indoor air quality testing results for some spaces on campus can be found on the U of M’s website.

The web page goes on to state that, “Improvements to HVAC systems in the 140 tested spaces are expected to be complete by fall 2023. Over the coming year, UM will complete the same assessment on its remaining 341 learning spaces across campuses and make upgrades as required.”

“COVID isn’t done yet, and hopefully we’ve learned something from this and are making changes going forward so that, overall, our working and learning environments are safe,” Dingwall said.

Benarroch was unavailable for an interview.

A statement given to the Manitoban by his office stated that while he had received the letter and it was being reviewed, the university “remains committed to the health and well-being of faculty, staff and students.”

“UMFA will receive a fulsome response to its letter in the coming weeks.”