A year ago, Matt Mills was preparing the Western community for a new smoke-free-campus policy.
Months in development, the policy was guided and directed by the principle that respect, patience and taking care of each other were fundamental to making it work for the benefit of all.
It was less about policing the new rules than about providing the community with the tools, structure and education they needed to safeguard everyone’s health.
Those same principles resonate today as students, faculty, staff and visitors safely return to campus in a time of COVID-19, said Mills, Western’s director of health, safety and well-being.
“Campus looks and feels different this year,” he said. “I don’t think it feels ‘normal’ for anyone yet.”
That difference goes beyond the directional and instructional signs all across campus, the requirement that everyone wear a mask while inside buildings, and the host of cues about necessary changes to daily procedures and behaviours.
Key to helping people understand and embrace shared responsibility and accountability in keeping COVID-19 at bay is the Take Care Western strategy– a reminder to take care of yourself, take care of each other and take care of your community.
It’s not a coincidence that the same mantra, ‘take care,’ punctuates the end of all his emails and conversations: “The message is that we all have to do our part to take precautionary measures and create a healthier, safer community,” Mills said.
“We can outline all of the things that we’ve done, we can be physically distant, we can all mask up – and we all need to do that – but I think it’s also a matter of approaching each other with a new level of empathy and trying to have a new level of responsibility for each other.”
Western has a detailed response to COVID-19 that includes health and safety measures for facilities as well as requirements for all students, faculty and staff. Different faculties and units may also have individualized requirements.
Mills said Western’s health measures and precautions are all taking place “in absolute lockstep” with the best health recommendations of the Middlesex-London Health Unit.
Anyone who needs an exemption from masking up will need to get permission from workplace health (staff/faculty) or the accessible education office (students), but they must still wear face shields, Mills said.
As with the pivot to a smoke-free campus last year, ambassadors from each faculty and unit have been enlisted to help explain the new rules, he said.
For classes that take place in person, an ambassador will be at entrance doors with spare masks if necessary and with portable OneCard-reader that will verify everyone has filled out the back-to-campus questionnaire that day.
Mills noted these measures will help officials with contact tracing if someone were to test positive for the virus.
“We’re really trying to be helpful. We know we work in a higher-education institution, so we’re working on education first.”
If the university needs to pivot partway through the year, there is “a robust, well-informed and detailed plan” for how to proceed, he said.
“I know we may be thrown some curveballs but we can adapt. The pandemic is new to us – we didn’t (originally) have a playbook for this – but one thing we know is that the Western community is flexible and we’ll get through this together.”