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VANCOUVER — Fears over hundreds of students being packed tightly together in exam halls while people with COVID-19 symptoms could show up to write finals has prompted a call for the cancellation of in-person exams at the University of British Columbia.

The university’s Alma Mater Society issued a public letter to administration saying students have come forward expressing concerns about the lack of distancing in exam halls that hold hundreds of students, as well as symptomatic students attending these exams.

Eshana Bhangu, the society’s vice president of academic and university affairs, said an “overwhelming” number of students have reached out to share their concerns.

She said the society has heard of little social distancing, people testing positive and attending exams as well as students being forced to sit on the floor and write their exams due to a lack of space.

“I’m looking for the university to demonstrate some leadership,” Bhangu said in an interview.

She added that the university was able to quickly transition to online learning when the pandemic first began.

“I understand there’s logistical challenges, but they’ve shown they can do it before,” Bhangu said. “It’s a matter of being willing.”

Kurt Heinrich, the university’s senior director of media relations, said in a statement that administration has told deans that they may work with their staff and professors to transition exams online where appropriate.

But he added that it would be left up to professors and academic staff to determine if an exam could be done online. 

“Each university’s situation is different and at UBC we continue to receive assurances from public health and the provincial government that we are not currently seeing a spike in cases that present a risk to the health of our students, faculty and staff,” he said. 

“We have been advised that we have significant controls and measures in place to keep our community safe.”

Ava Peacock, a second-year student, said she has written several exams during this period with roughly 900 other students, which has left her feeling worried for her health.

The lack of clarity on how many students are vaccinated against the virus and if people are attending after contracting COVID-19 is concerning, she added.

“We’re scared for our safety,” Peacock said.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, announced new restrictions to come in to effect on Monday over fears of the Omicron variant overwhelming hospitals.

They include a 50-per-cent capacity limit on venues that hold more than 1,000 people, a ban on youth and adult sports tournaments over the winter holiday period, and the cancellation of all New Year’s Eve parties.

Gurveen Kaur, a third-year student, said she’s concerned about the lack of close COVID-19 testing sites during the exam period.

Kaur lives and works on campus and said the nearest testing site is a 40 minute commute by transit.

“While universities across the world are going online, (the University of British Columbia’s) insistence on in person exams and instruction leads me to believe that UBC does not care for its student and employees,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2021.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

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