July 17, 2023
Sent via email
Dr. Michael Benarroch
President, University of Manitoba
202 Administration Building
Fort Garry Campus
Dear President Benarroch,
RE: Masking, Ventilation Standards, and other Health and Safety Matters
Despite much of the normalcy that has resumed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19 is not a trivial ailment, even for healthy people who are up to date with their vaccinations, and it continues to pose a severe threat to the most vulnerable among us. The ongoing circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Winnipeg makes it a workplace hazard, but one that can be mitigated.
On April 24, 2023, you announced that the mandatory mask mandate would be lifted as of May 1, 2023. It was replaced with the imperative to respect the decision of others to individually determine whether or not to wear a mask in University of Manitoba (UM) spaces.
As we are all aware, masking is especially important for reducing transmission of COVID-19 because it is most infectious before individuals develop symptoms. While it remains imperative for UM administration to direct people with symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home when sick, this is insufficient to prevent transmission on UM campuses.
The administration is obligated to take every reasonable measure to protect people from workplace hazards. Given the above factors, UMFA takes the position that the mandate should be expanded from its current form and enable UMFA members to mandate mask-use in the laboratories, classrooms, and office spaces over which they have direct control while performing their university duties. The Association further holds that students who are immunocompromised, or can otherwise demonstrate a need for accommodation with respect to protection from exposure to COVID-19, can apply through Student Accessibility Services to have a mask mandate imposed on particular learning spaces, as arranged in consultation with UMFA members per the University’s Student Accessibility Policy and Procedures. Accommodations such as these already exist for individuals with severe allergies (e.g. mandating peanut-free or scent-free spaces) and expanding such measures to include mandatory masking is an appropriate response based on what we have learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The administration has also communicated to the University community that its ventilation systems have been reviewed in the past few months and that almost all University spaces are up to acceptable standards. However, the Association continues to be concerned that the administration’s air testing techniques are flawed and inappropriate (e.g. testing air quality in empty buildings), and continue to question whether the standards being tested against are those that have been updated since the start of the pandemic. Ensuring the quality of the air in classrooms, labs, offices, and other spaces on campus is essential, and the administration should be open and transparent with all testing procedures used, and their results. The Association continues to hold that University-wide ventilation standards should utilize the most up-to-date air quality standards to minimize the circulation of COVID-19, and we note that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has recently approved Standard 241, “Control of Infectious Aerosols”, which the University should adopt. The administration should create publicly accessible webpages where the locations, dates, and results of air-quality testing are reported. In the event that a space does not meet the new ASHRAE standards, the administration should immediately acquire, and pay for from central funds, portable ventilation units to immediately improve the indoor air-quality, until a more permanent ventilation solution can be implemented.
The administration has taken some steps toward reminding members of the University committee of the benefits of wearing masks and the importance of staying home when sick. To help ensure these directives are effective the administration should redouble its efforts to advertise the benefits of mask use and to make available KN95 or equivalent masks, and should redouble its efforts to encourage staff and students to stay home when they experience COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms. To this end we request that the administration develop an appropriate plan of action on these issues, to be implemented in the lead up to the Fall 2023 Semester when it is reasonable to anticipate cases of COVID-19 will again be on the rise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the necessity of clean air in our indoor spaces, and the administration must act expediently to ensure our workplace is safe, and not ignore the vitally important lessons we have learned over the last three years.
President, University of Manitoba Faculty Association