Students of a Nova Scotia University were taken aback and now lack trust in the institution after a controversial document was circulated to students ahead of the upcoming school year.
The waiver, which was sent to St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) students last week, aims to absolve the school from any responsibility should they contract COVID-19 while attending classes or activities.
In order to attend the school, located in Antigonish, N.S., students must sign the document indicating they are aware of the risks of contracting the novel coronavirus at the school and freely accept those risks.
The legal document also 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.
It also states the signer will “waive any and all claims” they have or may have in the future against the school “due to any cause whatsoever, including negligence.”
“Where it says even in cases of negligence, if the university doesn’t follow its own policies, I think makes a lot of students nervous,” explained Will Fraser, a fifth-year student.
“The way the waiver’s written, based on what most students understand from it, is that StFX has no responsibility if that waiver is signed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Other students expressed frustration at the lack of opportunities provided to them as a result of the decision by the school’s administration to hold most classes in person this year.
‘Don’t really have much of an option’
Alexandra Daly, a third-year student, told Global News on Sunday that the waiver reinforced the power imbalance between students and the university.
“(Students) know that they don’t really have much of an option in this instance,” said Daly.
“It’s really hard for a student to defer or to just not go to school next year if they don’t agree… so (StFX knows) that students sort of need to sign this waiver even if they don’t agree with it.”
In response to the waiver, approximately 350 current students, alumni and local residents have signed their own letter, calling for the school to remove the requirements.
The letter criticizes the administration for a lack of consultation with students and a “disregard for student voice” at the campus – which normally has an enrolment of about 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
It also calls for an explanation of what plans will be in place to protect at-risk students, an increase of online classes and an apology to the StFX community “for the University’s attempt to abdicate their responsibility to provide a safe learning/living environment.”
‘Safety… our top priority’
In a statement, StFX president Andy Hakin said that the waiver isn’t aimed at absolving the university of responsibility and that “the safety of our students, faculty and staff, as well as the wider community remains our top priority.”
“If, at any time, we believe we cannot maintain the health and safety standards prescribed by our public health experts, we will not proceed,” Hakin said.
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 StFX 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 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.”
But at least one student says that her positive relationship with the school community, with faculty that made her feel like they had her best interests at heart, has been changed.
“I think that kind of breaks my trust a little bit in the institution,” Daly said.
“Maybe they just sort of want my money than anything else.”
‘Students back on campus’
The administration says the decision to use a waiver is practical ahead of an uncertain outlook on COVID-19.
“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,” Harkin 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.”
Students told Global News they expect an official response from St. FX by Wednesday, July 15 at noon
Dalhousie University, St. Mary’s University and MSVU in Halifax, N.S., have indicated they don’t plan to distribute similar waivers.
Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., are two schools that will provide in-person classes this fall, but spokespeople for the universities told The Canadian Press they aren’t currently requiring legal waivers.
— With files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Alexander Quon