Students at St. Francis Xavier University protest wording of COVID-19 waiver

HALIFAX — A group of students, alumni and some staff at St. Francis Xavier University are pushing back against a legal waiver that students are required to sign if they want to return to classrooms in the fall amid a global pandemic.

The university in Antigonish, N.S., is offering a mix of digital and classroom instruction this fall, with 72 per cent of undergraduate course offerings being in person.

In June, the campus published a detailed plan that it said ensured the university would meet public health protocols to prevent spread of the disease.

However, last week the university emailed students a waiver they’re asked to sign before attending classes.

The legal document asks students to agree the college isn’t liable for “loss, damage, illness, sickness, expense or injury including death” that students or their next of kin may suffer as a result of COVID-19 risks.

The document’s liability release says no claim will be made even in the event of “negligence, breach of contract, or breach of any statutory or other duty of care,” including the university failing to “take reasonable steps to safeguard or protect” the student from COVID-19 risks.

On Monday afternoon, a letter of protest signed by about 350 students, staff, alumni and local residents was sent to university president Andy Hakin calling for the waiver’s withdrawal and amendment.

It criticizes the administration for a lack of consultation with the students and a “disregard for student voice” at the campus — which normally has enrolment of about 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Will Fraser, a 22-year-old history student at the school, said he began collecting signatures over the weekend, after he realized he felt deeply uncomfortable about signing the waiver.

“I agree with some form of waiver. We’re in a global pandemic,” Fraser said in an interview.

“However, what we should expect is that if the university is negligent and if it fails to follow its own policies, then they should be held accountable for that.”

The president of St. Francis Xavier University Association of University Teachers says faculty have mixed reactions to the document.

“Many recognize such a disclaimer is a legal necessity, and its content emphasizes the importance of everyone following the required protocols,” wrote Martin van Bommel, a professor in the mathematics and statistics department.

“Others are uncertain, apprehensive, or disappointed, as its content implies the university is not confident of taking all of the precautions necessary to safeguard students, staff, and members of the local community.”

The president of the Students’ Union at St. Francis Xavier University says she’s heard a series of criticisms about the waiver, including from students with compromised immune systems.

Sarah Elliott said it came after a series of public consultations on the pandemic preparations, catching student leaders off guard.

“The Students’ Union was thrown off … because up until the waiver came out, we had a strong relationship with consultation on the pandemic plans, so we were disappointed when we didn’t see this waiver beforehand,” she said.

Hakin said in an emailed statement Monday that a community effort will be required in order to have a successful return to campus.

“In this instance, some members of our community are telling us that they are uncomfortable with our legal waiver,” he said. “We appreciate this feedback and will continue to engage with our stakeholders, and will review this decision to ensure it presents the best way forward.”

The university president had earlier distributed an email to the university community noting the waiver is part of the university’s overall approach to managing risks posed by the pandemic.

“The university has been advised by our insurers that insurance companies will not provide coverage related to the pandemic by the end of the year,” Hakin wrote.

“The waiver enables StFX to proceed with plans to have students back on campus, including having students in residence and in-person academic delivery.”

Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., are also providing in-person classes in the fall, but spokespeople for the universities told The Canadian Press they aren’t currently requiring legal waivers.

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