A closer look at return-to-campus planning

Drone image shows Vari Hall and the Ross Building on Keele Campus

As vaccines continue to be rolled out at an increasing pace over the coming months, the University is looking to bring more in-person courses and activities back onto campuses in the fall term and preparing for a full return in winter.

As Special Advisor to the President for Academic Continuity Planning and COVID-19 Response, Faculty of Health Professor Parissa Safai has been working with a team of experts and leaders across York University on return to campus planning that ensures the health and safety of students, faculty, instructors and staff is a number one priority.

Q: Who is involved in the return to campus planning process?

A: In the first year of the University’s pandemic response, staff and faculty from across the University participated as part of an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) team to ensure that York’s campuses, programs and people were safeguarded.

In January 2021, a new COVID-19 planning and response model was developed given the sustained nature of the pandemic. The COVID Planning and Response (CPR) and Central Operations Resource (COR) groups meet very regularly and draw together expertise from across the University, from ancillary services, facilities (cleaning, storage and ventilation), academic planning, campus and community safety and property management. They draw on the expertise developed during the first year of the University’s pandemic response and continue to serve the university community in a cross-functional, consultative, and coordinated manner.

Q: What information is guiding the University’s planning for the return to campus?

A: Planning for the return to York’s campuses always begins with careful attention to the data. This ranges from information on the current state of the pandemic and the possible trajectory of the COVID-19 virus over the coming months.

We routinely scan the local and global infection rates, including those associated with the variants of concern, as well as the pace of the vaccine rollout and uptake across the region, the province, the country and the world. We’re also considering how the roll out of vaccines and case rates may impact our community members where they live.

We closely watch municipal, provincial and federal government directives as well, as guidance from international groups including the World Health Organization (WHO) evolve. Internationally, we are closely watching the emergence of safe travel corridors in some regions of the world; how risk of importation shifts; and the development and consideration of vaccine verification tools (often referred to as vaccine passports).

Q: What key developments have led to a more positive outlook on the fall and winter terms?

A: In Ontario, the provincial government’s decision to commit to a vaccination sprint strategy for hotspot areas in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, to accelerate the first-dose vaccination schedule for all Ontarians, and to lower the age eligibility have all contributed to a more optimistic scenario for the fall and winter terms. These decisions have required us to pivot in our return to campus planning.

Ontario just passed the threshold where 50 per cent of eligible adults have received their first-dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and there is a growing sense that the interval between doses will be shortened. Canada is also currently outpacing other jurisdictions around the world in vaccinations and modellers have suggested that with this current pace, we may be on track to meet targets where some measures could begin to lift by fall.

We are also encouraged by Health Canada’s recent approval of vaccines for those between 12 to 15 years of age, and news that vaccines may be approved for those younger than 12 years by the end of the summer. What this all means is that there is growing likelihood that more of our community will be fully immunized by the end of the summer and the latest roadmap out of the pandemic from the Public Health Agency of Canada supports our thinking.

Q: Given how closely the University is following vaccine rollout and uptake, does this mean that students, staff, instructors, and faculty will be required to get a vaccine in order to come on campus?

A: York is closely watching how universities around the world are or are not considering required vaccinations for those who want to participate in activities on campus, with specific exemptions where needed.

We strongly encourage all members of our community who are able, to get vaccinated as soon possible to protect themselves, as well as the health and safety of their families, friends and colleagues. At this point in time, York is not requiring students, staff, instructors and faculty to be vaccinated in order to participate in in-person activities on our campuses.

We appreciate, however, that there has been a great deal of confusion and misinformation out there about vaccines, and we recognize that everyone must be able to make informed choices for themselves. That is why we have put together a curated list of resources with credible information about vaccines, which is available on our newly refreshed Better Together website.

We also appreciate that there may be members of our community who are unable to get vaccinated. This is why our return to campus planning strategies are not singularly dependent on just vaccine uptake and requires a comprehensive approach to supporting health and safety.

Q: Will changes be made to the required physical distancing over the coming months?

A: Currently, the guidance is two metres of physical distance in Canada and existing activities at the University follow this closely. We do have reason to believe that physical distancing requirements may be reduced by the fall, given the changes in guidance being issued by different organizations and governments.

If the two-metre bylaw is not lifted by September, then we will continue observing all public health regulations appropriately and our plans will support this. At minimum, we will have a plan in place should the physical distancing requirement shift from two metres to one metre.

Outside of the province, we know that in British Columbia, the government issued a Return to Campus primer that removes the requirement for physical distancing in controlled classroom environments in the fall.

The WHO has also updated all of its infographics and guidance on physical distancing to reiterate that at least one metre of physical distancing is needed to ensure safety and that, in certain indoor settings enhanced measures must be put into place to mitigate risk or individuals are advised to be further apart than one metre.

Q: Given that COVID is an airborne disease why is there discussion about reducing physical distancing?

A: From an institutional perspective, our return to campus planning for the fall and beyond requires us to consider the interplay between numerous factors, in addition to physical distancing requirements. Our approach to planning considers the increasing pace of vaccination; the quality of the ventilation systems in our campus spaces; frequent cleaning of high touchpoint surfaces; the maintenance of up-to-date campus safety plans specific to COVID-19; where possible, the management of pedestrian traffic and discouraging crowding.

From an individual perspective, a healthy and safe return to campus will require each member of our University community to observe the public health measures we currently have and will continue to have in place. This includes completing a daily COVID-19 self-assessment through the soon-to-be released automated tool; not attending campus while ill; following handwashing and hygiene protocols; and continuing to wear a mask/face covering while on our campuses.

Q: Is the University paying attention to things like ventilation, cleaning and plexiglass barriers?

A: These issues have been at the forefront of the University’s efforts to keep the community healthy and safe since the beginning of the pandemic. While many of us have not had a chance to come to campus over the past 14 months, it is critical to remember that the University has not been closed.

In-person courses and research have been delivered and conducted safely on our campuses. We have had hundreds of students living in our residences, and our Libraries have provided access to essential study space for students in need. Much has been done on our campuses to improve ventilation, refresh spaces, install plexiglass barriers in high-traffic areas, upgrade facilities, and enable more technology-enhanced classrooms. Thousands of people are studying and working on our campuses daily and safely.

This recent Q-and-A with York’s Director of Property Management, Stewart Dankner, highlights a lot of the work that has been done to improve ventilation, including the heightened protocols that have been initiated since the beginning of the pandemic. Our remarkable team in Facilities Services track thousands of data points daily on air circulation, air exchanges and levels of filtration in campus spaces based on leading-edge research and industry standards.

More significantly, the Facilities Services team approaches their analysis of air quality in campus spaces with a special sensitivity to the type of activity conducted there and associated transmission risks. Some spaces will be outfitted with additional HEPA ventilation units because the activities being undertaken there involve more active or forced air expiration (e.g. singing, dancing). In other spaces, additional health and safety measures like plexiglass barriers are required to keep people safe and these have and will continue to be installed. Simply put though, if a space doesn’t meet the necessary health and safety requirements, it will be restricted from use.