StFX requiring returning students sign liability waiver

ANTIGONISH: As StFX will be only one of two universities across the province to welcome students back to campus for an in-person fall semester, the school is also requiring their students to sign a COVID-19 liability waiver to attend classes.

By signing the waiver, students would relinquish certain legal rights, including the right to sue or claim compensation for the “loss, damage, illness, sickness, expense or injury including death…as a result of COVID-19 risks.”

Sarah Elliot, president of the StFX Students Union said the controversial waiver sent to students was received with mixed reactions.

She indicated a lot of people have strong feelings surrounding the waiver, while student opinions remain mixed, and some even feel pressured into signing it since it must be signed by August 1 or their student account be suspended.

“A lot of students felt very grateful that they were going to have the opportunity to learn in-person, and they accept that [there] is still a risk,” Elliot said. “A lot of other people felt like StFX wouldn’t be holding themselves accountable to look after the students.”

The university ultimately has the final say on what happens with the fall semester, the head of the students union advised, and the only thing they can do is make sure students are being supported and safe.

Complex legal language in the waiver has created for even more concern and confusion among students, faculty and staff.

While many professors are looking forward to returning to classes for the fall semester, the head of the teacher’s union at StFX said there is still some apprehension among its members.

Martin van Bommel, president of the StFX Association of University Teachers (AUT), advised members were “cautiously optimistic” the past few weeks but the release of the waiver changed some of their views.

He explained the lack of communication and consultation surrounding the waiver, and the necessity of a waiver itself, led to uncertainty and apprehension about how StFX is dealing with the pandemic.

Members of the AUT want to see more clarification on what classrooms will look like, what residences will look like, and how the students are expected to behave while on campus.

StFX President Andrew Hakin said the waiver is just one piece of the university’s overall risk management approach.

“We understand that, we see that, and so in putting out the waiver, we wanted to be transparent about that with our students – they have a physical choice to make about whether or not they’re comfortable coming back to StFX and the community,” he said. “We didn’t want that to be slipped in somewhere, so that people would find it and be shocked by the approach.”

Hakin said the waiver is required because the university was informed that insurance providers are not going to cover COVID-19 claims in the upcoming year; and also advised the legal language is severe, but he wants it to be as straight forward as possible.

“We are there for them – it does not absolve, in any way, the responsibly of the university to create a safe environment for everyone on campus,” he said. “If at any time we believe we cannot maintain the health and safety standards prescribed by our public health experts, we will not proceed.”

Nova Scotia’s Minister of Advanced Education, Labi Kousoulis explained on July 16 that changes will be made to StFX’s liability waiver. Kousoulis said in the original document, StFX required students to give up potential legal claims even if the university fails to take reasonable steps to safeguard students from COVID-19 risks including “negligence, breach of contract, or breach of any statutory or other duty of care.”

He’s unsure what the wording will consist of in the revised version, but he expects the new waiver will not look like the old one.

Acadia University in Wolfville, is also welcoming students back for in-person classes for the fall semester however, they are not currently requiring students to sign a liability waiver to return to class.