Students are concerned about in-person labs

I am sending this letter to draw attention to the unfair circumstances currently imposed by the University of Manitoba’s faculty of science on students regarding mandatory labs and travel as COVID-19 increases in severity across the country. I view this as both a public health issue and a violation of student safety. I have been implored by fellow students, family and friends to bring it to the media for inquiry and hopefully support.

In July, myself and numerous other students registered for deferred labs that were set to take place from Jan. 5 to Jan. 15. This lab section was set aside for students who were concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19 in the lab during the fall semester or who were forced to live out of the province due to challenges brought about by the pandemic. As it stands, the only options offered by the faculty of science are to attend the in-person labs, fail or voluntarily withdraw from the course. At the time of registration, Manitoba’s caseload was low, and while I understood that numbers would increase come fall, I did not expect an increase as severe as this.

No other options were presented to us. I care about my university career and obtaining my degree, however, I care about stopping the spread, keeping my loved ones safe and my own mental and financial health even more.

I have withdrawn from the course and recognize that I will likely need an extra year to obtain my degree. Numerous other students are also being forced to make the same decision.

As I watched case numbers rise, I began to feel incredibly uncomfortable with travelling to Manitoba in early January to complete my labs. Once Canada was placed under a non-essential travel advisory, this discomfort only grew. Not only was I concerned about exposing myself to COVID-19 while travelling, but I was also concerned about exposing fellow travellers and transmitting the novel coronavirus to Winnipeg communities and to my home community in the British Columbian interior. I live in a town that is predominantly populated by people over the age of 60 — including my grandmother, whom I live with.

We have been fairly isolated in regard to COVID-19, and I refuse to risk changing that and bringing it here. In order to get to Winnipeg, I would have to take four flights total, stopping in Calgary, Alta. or Vancouver, B.C. to transfer. With airline exposures increasing, that was not a chance that I wanted to take.

Before withdrawing from my classes, I wrote an email to my faculty advisor inquiring whether the faculty of science was planning on deferring the labs further or providing alternative options so that students would not have to travel. My faculty advisor then forwarded the email to the dean of the faculty of agriculture, who further brought it up with members of the administration and the faculty of science.

I also helped a fellow student share an email that was sent to numerous deans, the vice-provost, student advocacy and the University of Manitoba Students’ Union. She gathered over 30 signatures from fellow students who shared our concerns regarding the labs. She also gained support from the faculty of agriculture and our course professor. A few students also emailed their MLAs who shared our concerns.

Despite voicing our concerns and gaining support from numerous faculty members and fellow students, the faculty of science maintained that they would be following through with in-person labs during the remainder of the fall term and the January deferred lab sessions.

The faculty claims that student safety is imperative to them, yet they are disregarding our concerns and have ignored the various alternatives students and various faculty members presented to them.

I would like to clearly indicate that my anger is not directed at my professor, who attempted to advocate for us, or at the faculty of science. Rather, I am angry at the fact that the university does not have the resources to even consider student exceptions and concerns due to budget cuts and understaffing, which is a symptom of a much larger issue in the lack of government support and funding for the university.

The faculty’s decision left me with two options: fly to Winnipeg to attend the labs — which would require me to isolate alone in a Winnipeg hotel for two weeks over Christmas prior to, and during, the labs, and for two weeks again upon returning to British Columbia — or withdraw from the course without a full refund. The university offered me the ability to appeal for a refund for a maximum of $600.

So, I had to choose between either giving up over two months’ worth of lab reports, midterms, dedicated studying and all the related fees or potentially exposing myself to COVID-19.

I am incredibly disappointed with the faculty’s lack of flexibility. As much as I dislike this term, we really are living in unprecedented times, and the university should be prioritizing student and community safety over the completion of lab work.

I understand that in-person labs and the skills learned during them are imperative. However, we must all learn to adapt to the current circumstances as best we can, and the university is no exception.

To demand out-of-province students to fly in and out of Canada’s COVID-19 hotspot right after the holidays is inexcusable and a public health concern.