Two virtual town hall sessions held this week for faculty and staff of the Faculty of Health Sciences heard questions that ranged from a hybrid work model and ventilation of campus buildings to guidelines for fully-vaccinated people and whether the health sciences library will be open.

Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty, was the moderator and opened the sessions by thanking every one of the Faculty for their hard work, commitment, energy and flexibility during the pandemic.

“The response from the members of the Faculty of Health Sciences has been remarkable,” he said. 

He outlined McMaster University’s plans for a student-first focus for the fall.

This will put an emphasis on having as many learners back on campus and in in-person learning as possible while keeping up the screening, masking, social distancing and hand hygiene that is important during the pandemic. Staff who are not ‘student-facing’, however, will continue to work remotely if possible.

He said that the university is anticipating that the winter 2022 session beginning in January will be as close to pre-pandemic operations as possible for student on-campus life and learning activities.

In answering a question about whether McMaster will continue to allow staff to work remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic, Leslie Cooke-Bithrey, the Faculty’s director of human resources, said McMaster human resources is emphasizing this fall will be a time to pilot arrangements addressing both employee wellness and operational needs.

“Every department will be determining the appropriate level of onsite presence for their area, and we expect the fall will be a transitional time.”

Guidelines are being developed for longer term work from home arrangements, she added.

Rob Whyte, vice-dean, education, was asked about the expectations for faculty members to offer remote as well as in-person learning, and he said there are two types of in-person learning for the fall.

“The first is related to required clinical or skills training, and we have already been doing in abundance at the Faculty. The second are activities where participating in-person has a much greater impact than a remote experience,” he said, pointing out these could include labs, anatomy and program orientations.

Whyte said each instructor should work with their program to determine if changes are needed, but many courses will operate as they did last fall.

Vice-Dean, Research Jonathan Bramson said that research activities are in phase two and research involving human participants is allowed, however approved written research activity plans are needed. He added that more details are available on the university’s website at research.mcmaster.ca/covid19.  

Bill Orovan, vice-dean of clinical service and commercial enterprise, took the question about direction for fully-vaccinated people, saying that although the Public Health Agency of Canada put out some guidelines on this topic last week, the university will follow provincial and local public health, as well as university, guidelines until their guidelines are changed.  

Laura Harrington, assistant vice-president for the Faculty, answered a question regarding ventilation of the Health Sciences Centre and other campus buildings used by the Faculty.

She said the Health Sciences Centre, which is also the McMaster Children’s Hospital, operates under the Canadian Standards Association’s standards for health care facilities which includes air handling preventative maintenance, filter replacements and standard air changes rates per hour, and it is fully compliant.

She said that the central campus utilities team, with the Environmental & Occupational Health Support Services, is assessing and making any required updates to ventilation systems in campus buildings. This fall, they will be maximizing fresh air, inspecting lecture halls and classrooms for ventilation and installing high standard air filters.

“I would like to reinforce that basic infection prevention and control approaches are very effective at preventing transmission so we should all continue to follow public health guidelines,” she added.

Harrington also answered questions regarding parking, particularly for people who may return to campus part-time.

She said the university’s facilities services office is considering flexible parking pass options, and more would be announced in coming weeks, however for those who had parking pass privileges before the pandemic will be offered the option of renewing their parking pass transponder, selecting a temporary part-time option or placing their parking pass on hold. These options will be reconsidered for the Winter 2022 session.

At the Health Sciences Centre, Hamilton Health Sciences will not be able to support a programmable part-time transponder for the hospital’s parking garages. Faculty and staff using the underground or south parking will have the choice of reinstating their transponder full-time; continuing to have it suspended through December; or cancelling it. Staff have the option of daily parking for an hourly rate up to the daily maximum of $20 or purchasing a part-time transponder for parking on the main campus lot for the fall term.

Asked about the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff returning to campus, Cooke-Bithrey said that units, departments and programs will need to provide the PPE for staff and faculty, and departments can purchase medical masks at the Health Sciences Stores for use within hospital environments.

Harrington said that the Health Science Library plans to be open starting Sept. 13 with reduced hours that will be reassessed during the fall. It will allow the maximum capacity permitted by public health guidance. Food and drink will not be allowed in the library, and space allowances will be focused on supporting student learning.

Speaking on behalf of Jennifer McKinnell, director of the library, she added: “Like other arrangements, this is tentative. The library plans to be as flexible as possible and hopes to expand service and space as things continue to improve.”

Harrington was asked about food services, and safe places to eat without a mask. She said some food service outlets will be open and since indoor seating is not yet allowed, there will be “grab and go” food offerings.

She said that regarding safe places for lunch, employee lounges are open with health and safety guidelines in place, private offices may be used by the occupant and “the university is also reimagining outdoor spaces to maximize the opportunities for people to spend time outdoors in the fresh air, which includes lunch time and breaks.”

In summing up, O’Byrne said the pandemic is dynamic and further developments on arrangements will happen during the summer. He said he will be sending out his COVID-19 updates, and much information will be on the university’s Return to Mac website. Questions about the Faculty’s situation regarding the pandemic may be sent to fhs2021@mcmaster.ca.

 

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