StFX moving forward with controversial waiver, students ‘disappointed’

A group of students, alumni and some staff at St. Francis Xavier University are pushing back against a legal waiver students are required to sign if they want to return to classrooms in the fall amidst a global pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) in Antigonish, N.S., sent out a letter to its students on Thursday saying they have decided to move forward with the COVID-19 waiver, despite weeks of controversy and backlash from students.

“StFX Board of Governors’ Executive determined that the new Student Community Protocols and the legal waiver remain the best way forward and a necessity in order for the University to welcome students to campus in the fall,” the letter read.

The waiver, which was sent to StFX students in the first week of July, aimed to absolve the school from any legal responsibility should students contract COVID-19 while attending classes or activities.

The legal document asked 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.

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It also states students will “waive any and all claims” they have or may have in the future against the school “due to any cause whatsoever, including negligence.”

Fifth-year student Will Fraser told Global News he was disappointed to receive the letter.

“My biggest concern is that the waiver is still restrictive in its language. Even if the university does absolutely nothing to protect students and the community from COVID-19, there’s still no mechanism for pursuing legal action,” Fraser says.

“We know the university can’t do everything to be able to ensure 100 per cent protection, but I think there are very basic things around following their own policies ­— and not being negligent.”

Alexandra Daly, a third-year student at StFX, says she was also disappointed with the waiver plan.

“It definitely seems like the university did not listen to the will of the students in any regard,” Daly says.

Daly says signing a waiver for personal responsibility over COVID-19 would be a good idea. “But, in the event of negligence on the part of the university, or breaching their own duty of care, that’s not the student’s fault,” she says.

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Click to play video: 'Students say St. Francis Xavier University waiver unacceptable'
Students say St. Francis Xavier University waiver unacceptable

Fraser believes the university should at least offer more online courses. He says students are concerned because many don’t have options for a full online course load.

Once students sign the waiver, Fraser says they cannot hold the university accountable for keeping them safe on the campus they have no choice but to be on, because of a lack of online courses.

“A lot of the conversations are around ‘do we even have a choice here?’” Fraser says.

“(Many) students can’t afford to take a year off, and if you do it can affect your eligibility for student aid, it can affect your degree pattern,” Fraser says.

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In Thursday’s letter, StFX said a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was developed with the student union to clarify the university’s role relating to some of the concerns the students voiced, and to express commitment to openly engage with students up to the start of the school year.

Fraser says the MOU is a good step forward. “We think overall, the MOU doesn’t add a lot to the conversation, but it does add a sense of accountability.”

He says he is optimistic that students are being heard and that more changes will come until students have to sign the waiver Aug. 14.

Following the backlash from students, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Advanced Education Labi Kousoulis said two weeks ago, that changes will be made to the legal waiver StFX students were asked to sign.

Fraser says he is optimistic that students were heard, and the waiver will be reasonably changed.

Daly believes the university does care about the student’s health and safety, and says she is hoping for a compromise.

StFX said in the letter students will be receiving detailed instructions on how to sign their documents on Tuesday.

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Global News reached out to St. Francis Xavier University who declined an interview.

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