The president of the BCIT Faculty and Staff Association says programs and faculty should be allowed to decide on an individual basis whether they deliver classes in person during the Omicron wave. BCIT

BCIT faculty association president wants online learning on a case-by-case basis

BCITFSA president Colin Jones wants some clarity on the level of autonomy that BCIT has in making its own decisions when it comes to education delivery.

By Srushti Gangdev | January 21, 2022 |5:00 am

With the diverse forms of applied education offered at the institute, faculty and staff at BCIT say they should be allowed to deliver online learning as needed on a case-by-case basis—instead of a blanket return to campus for all programs.

The BCIT Faculty and Staff Association (BCITFSA) wrote to provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry earlier this month, before classes were set to resume on Jan 10.

“Your order to return to in-person instruction in January has left many of our members frustrated, demoralized, and to be candid, fearing for the safety of themselves, their families, and their students. … While we concur with your view set out in your December 21, 2021 letter that in-person instruction is preferable, we are perplexed why your office is intractable in not allowing a brief period of online instruction in order to allow the worst of this wave to pass, and for a greater proportion of the community to receive booster shots,” BCITFSA president Colin Jones wrote to Henry.

“To be blunt, with a minimum of over 3,000 new cases a day, rising hospitalization, and a testing and contact tracing process under unsustainable pressure, the push for in-person instruction at all costs makes little sense.”

Jones wants some clarity on the level of autonomy that BCIT has in making its own decisions when it comes to education delivery. While there was some confusion last summer on the ability of research universities like UBC and SFU to set their own rules, those two institutions announced delayed starts to the new term in the face of the Omicron wave.

Students at SFU will be returning to campus beginning Jan 24, while UBC decided to keep most programs online for another two weeks until Feb 7.

There is a legal distinction between the powers afforded to institutions like BCIT, which falls under the College and Institute Act, and those like UBC and SFU, which fall under the University Act of BC.

The College and Institute Act does include a stipulation that the minister of advanced education and skills training (Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA Anne Kang) be allowed to issue policy directives or guidance to post-secondary institutions.

Kang may also “provide services the minister considers necessary to an institution, and the minister may require the institution to use the services provided,” and “designate other functions that a provincial institute must perform.”

Those requirements are not included in the University Act.

Jones said, however, that the legal minutiae of governing acts is irrelevant to the everyday experiences of faculty, staff and students—and in his Jan 7 letter to Henry, pointed out that people don’t decide where they study or work based on which act applies to the institution.

“We’re repeatedly told by the minister of advanced education and skills training that BCIT is autonomous. But at the same time, we’re told regularly by BCIT that the provincial health officer states what is and what is not acceptable, down to the level of course delivery. And the public, as well as our members and students, struggle to understand why there’s two levels of autonomy in terms of keeping post-secondary communities safe,” he told the Beacon this week.

“Research institutions can make decisions in the best interests of their community, but colleges and institutes don’t have the same level of freedom. It doesn’t matter to the virus if you’re sitting in a class at BCIT or in a class at another post-secondary, and students don’t appreciate the nuances of the political difference beside it.”

Jones also said he wants to better understand the role of public health in determining policies for the education sector, pointing out that in most cases, COVID restrictions have been about telling sectors what they cannot do rather than what they must do.

“I haven’t heard of other organizations being told that they have to be at 100% capacity face-to-face, except in education. I understand that Save On Foods has announced that they’ve chosen to operate at 50% capacity,” he said.

“And it’s being praised, having done the right thing for the community. But meanwhile, when it comes to education, that same sort of common sense approach isn’t afforded to folks.”

BCIT said in an emailed statement that, as an applied learning institute, it delivers a significant component of its instruction in workshops and laboratories that are crucial to student success. It also said it’s heard from students who are eager to return to campus, and pointed to in-person learning as beneficial for student mental health.

“We understand concerns expressed by some students and faculty. The safety and well-being of our BCIT community is our primary focus. Our return to in-person learning aligns with the minister of advanced education and skills training and provincial health officer guidance for post-secondary institutions,” a spokesperson said.

Jones agreed that BCIT provides a rather unique learning experience compared to some other institutions. Many programs at the school focus on providing students with hands-on experience rather than theory-based learning.

But he said that’s further evidence that programs and faculty should be able to make individual decisions about what’s best for their circumstances.

“Dr. Henry is the expert in managing infectious diseases and public health policy. There’s no question about that. But having worked at BCIT for 25 years, I know that our faculty are the experts in delivering applied polytechnic post-secondary education,” he said.

“And I think that our appeal is simply for each expert to focus on the domain that they’re best at and allowing BCIT to have the autonomy for departments and programs to determine what’s best for them. What works best for an accountant probably isn’t going to work best for someone learning to be a broadcaster, which is probably not what works best for someone who needs to be a nurse.”

Jones said some programs will be able to more easily put safety measures like distancing, physical barriers, or even testing in place. Others lend themselves to online learning much easier than others.

But he said letting the decision to move classes online fall to the program level, or even the course and class level, would allow people on the ground to determine what makes the most sense for them. It would also reduce the number of people on campus if some classes were moved online, making it safer for those who need to be onsite.

Jones told the Beacon that two weeks into the resumption of in-person learning at BCIT, the campus hasn’t gotten to the point where a third of staff and students are out sick—which is a level of illness that the province told businesses to prepare for.

Nonetheless, he said there are a lot of people not coming to campus.

“There are a lot of empty classrooms. The challenge is really the inconsistency. When students and faculty get sick, obviously things move online. But meanwhile, other programs that haven’t had any known issues of folks getting sick yet—they’re still having classes face to face,” he said.

“And there’s a lot of nervous folks looking around. There’s nervous students, there’s nervous faculty.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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