Growing list of U of R profs bringing forward COVID-19, masking concerns

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Jerome Melancon says the university should have better policies in place to mitigate risk and make sure to “give students the chance to succeed and do well and not have their studies and their lives interrupted by COVID-19.”

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With an immunocompromised family member at home, Jerome Melancon says COVID-19 risks and precautions are always top of mind for the sake of his loved ones.

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But as an associate professor and chair of the French and Francophone Intercultural Studies Program at the University of Regina’s La Cite universitairie francophone, it’s also top of mind when it comes to fellow staff and colleagues, as well as the students they teach.

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“I believe it’s important for us to look after each other,” Melancon said in an interview Tuesday. “Making sure that we have policies in place so that we mitigate risk, policies to make sure that we give students the chance to succeed and do well and not have their studies and their lives interrupted by COVID-19.”

“And at this point I’m just really concerned about the path that we’re taking.”

Melancon is one of more than 40 signatories, a number that continues to grow, to an open letter drafted to colleagues and on the agenda for the U of R’s next Executive of Council meeting.

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It was born after a group of professors recently took to social media to express concerns about how university administration is communicating about COVID-19 and current recommendations from public health to mask up in crowded indoor places. Since then, many more have begun to speak out as well.

“In August, they made an announcement that there will be no mandatory masking on campus in the fall and since that communication, they haven’t communicated anything more about the public health risks or the recommendations that are now clear from public health officials that masking should happen,” Emily Eaton, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, said in a recent interview.

Eaton has also signed the open letter along with occupational health and safety expert Sean Tucker and many others. The letter includes a number of recommendations to “increase adoption of desired public health behaviour during the BA.5 wave.”

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It does not call for mandates, but for the U of R to “adopt and amplify public health recommendations, like masking in crowded indoor spaces and isolating when sick, including signage to communication those recommendations at entrances and throughout the university; continue communicating weekly wastewater results to the campus community; make KN95 masks available in classrooms and building entrances along with “clear and concise” information on public health recommendations; make rapid tests widely available on campus; increase engagement with staff and students who are vulnerable and take a proactive approach to accommodation; and provide “visible and enthusiastic leadership support for desired public health behaviours.”

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“We realize that current Saskatchewan government policies leave little room for a mask mandate in any publicly-funded facility, so short of requesting a masking mandate, the six suggestions above would at least mitigate current risks to some degree,” the letter states.

In a recent interview, U of R president Jeff Keshen stood by the university’s messaging around COVID-19 and said those who wish to wear a mask are encouraged to do so. He emphasized that only four or five professors have reached out to administration with concerns around COVID-19, but Melancon said he’s not surprised there are more with similar concerns.

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Many who have signed have tenure, but he suspects there are even more who would sign if they had the same protection.

“The point isn’t to have absolutely everybody agree with it, but to remind our colleagues that this is really important to us,” Melancon said.

The Executive of Council is a subcommittee of council, which consists of the university’s president (who is chair of the executive), vice-presidents, university secretary, registrar, librarian, assistant librarians, and the deans, directors, professors, associate professors, assistant professors, and more.

It looks at central policy questions, Melancon said, and is the signatories’ “main tool of collegial governance,” the letter states.

“All of us have attempted, through various means, to influence the University’s policies. We have reached out directly to University administration to express our concerns. The members of the executive team have heard these arguments before,” the letter says. “This is a call to our peers to open a different path.”

Executive of Council meets next week. Signatures for the open letter continue to be collected.

jackerman@postmedia.com

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