A look inside B.C. universities’ COVID-19 safety ambassador programs

Thompson Rivers University, Simon Fraser University, and the University of the Fraser Valley are taking steps to keep shared spaces safe and monitored

Covid-19 safety ambassadors at UFV. (Courtesy of UFV)

In an effort to keep their students and staff safer in shared spaces, some local universities have created their own COVID-19 safety ambassador programs, where staff or students are trained to ensure precautions are being taken on campuses.

The Runner spoke with Thompson Rivers University, Simon Fraser University, and the University of the Fraser Valley to find out why they created their programs, what their ambassadors are doing, and the everyday differences that they are making.

Thompson Rivers University

Matt Rapparlie, a risk management specialist at TRU, says that the creation process of their COVID-19 safety ambassador program involved collaborating with other schools around B.C.

“Because all the schools are quite different, we saw how we could get pieces that fit with Thompson Rivers and best serve us,” Rapparlie says.

For TRU, this meant stationing their COVID-19 ambassadors outside of communal areas like computer labs and study spaces. They sit at tables shielded by plexiglass, with their own hand sanitizer and wipes to disinfect their stations.

Ambassadors make sure that physical distancing is maintained, occupancy limits are not exceeded, and that people are sanitizing their hands and workspaces.

An essential part of their job is to collect the contact information of those that enter these spaces for contact tracing later on.

“Everyone has been pretty compliant. I’ve been very lucky to see that as well. It’s nice knowing that the student body cares enough to follow everything in place,” says Alex Duarosan, an ambassador at TRU.

Duarosan acknowledges that while the pandemic has prevented her from carrying out some of her plans like attending cheerleading competitions and travelling, it has also brought her this new opportunity. She believes that it is important to see the good that can, at times, come from the bad.

“The pandemic certainly put a hold on several things, and I think I wanted to help bring those back by flattening the curve. And I’m doing my part to help do that,” she says.

Identifiable from their T-shirts with an illustration of social distancing, the ambassador positions are filled by students. Rapparlie says that this was a key part of TRU’s COVID-19 Safety Ambassador program.

“A lot of the opportunities [students] typically have in a normal year for making any money on campus was not an option this year, so this seemed like a good opportunity to provide some sort of work-type experience for them,” he says.

Without the program, these spaces and services likely wouldn’t be available for students, as it would be difficult to maintain consistent monitoring, explains Rapparlie.

“The campus community as a whole is understanding that we’re all in the same situation, and they look at [the ambassadors] as the people who are helping keep everybody safe and keeping everything running as smoothly as it can be, given all the other circumstances,” he says.

Simon Fraser University

Andrea Ringrose, a lead creator of the COVID-19-Safety Ambassador Team and director of campus public safety at SFU, says that the university came together in a “heartening collaboration” to roll out safety measures on campus.

“As we started to move through the response and into the recovery, it became evident that there was a real need to have a dedicated mechanism to help uphold all of this important work that had happened,” says Ringrose.

“So I created this team with the primary goal to provide education and friendly reminders, and have a really visible team there to welcome folks back to the new version of life at SFU,” she says.

Wearing their blue safety vests and yellow backpacks, the safety ambassadors, referred to as “CATs,” roam the campus common areas and hallways to gently remind people of the university’s COVID-19 regulations through educating and redirecting.

The CATs are made up of existing SFU staff members from departments and services who are already familiar with the campus culture, which is one of the big reasons Ringrose feels that this program has been so successful.

Laura Brenton, a lead COVID-19 ambassador at SFU, traditionally works in the school’s Meeting, Event, and Conference Services, but says when she was asked if she was interested in joining the CATs, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I think it’s really neat to be part of this project. It’s nice to engage with students and staff again, instead of just over Zoom meetings,” she says. “I really like the connection that we’ve been able to make … and I’m hoping that I make people feel safe and make the campus feel safe. I feel really lucky to be part of this program.”

Their job can range from filling up hand sanitizer stations to returning furniture to their socially-distanced designated spots. And throughout their day, they collect data about these types of incidences on forms that are then analyzed for trends or problem areas.

This data collection helps inform administration when changes are needed.

“I just try to keep it really light, really personable and try to smile through the mask,” says Brenton about how she approaches people in need of a gentle reminder.

The reaction to the CATs has been completely positive, says Ringrose. She highlights that people have said they are reassured by having a team dedicated to COVID safety, and it demonstrates how seriously SFU is taking this.

“We find that individuals are consistently really respectful of this … largely, everybody’s really understanding and over time, we’re really seeing the results of that shared responsibility culture growing at SFU. I really think it’s hats off to this team,” says Ringrose.

University of the Fraser Valley

Similar to the other two universities, UFV security manager Chris Humphries agrees that the ambassadors are not there to deal out punishments but instead, to educate people on campus about rules when necessary.

UFV’s Risk and Safety Ambassador program is an opportunity for students to help make their campuses a safer place to visit. Ambassadors can be identified by their blue T-shirts that encourage social distancing, their clipboards, and radios.

“The program was developed to assist people who have to come to campus, and so the idea is to have the ambassadors encourage and educate those folks as they’re here,” says Humphries.

Their focus is on communal, shared spaces where people could potentially gather and unintentionally spread the virus.

While on shift, the ambassadors recorded suggestions and concerns voiced to them, and any incidents that occurred then reported back to UFV’s Risk and Safety Department. They can also be found helping students get to study spaces and “other student-related resources,” according to UFV.

Humphries says that they work around students’ class schedules, but at least one ambassador is on duty, per campus, when two are not available.

“They are high visibility, they’re out there engaging with students, with their peers, and just encouraging them to follow the rules,” says Humphries.

Similar to the other universities, the feedback received on the Risk and Safety Ambassador program has been positive. So positive, in fact, that UFV’s senior administration group is hoping to see more students out there as ambassadors, explains Humphries.

“There’s definitely an appetite for this kind of service on campus,” he says. “And that’s particularly important as we continue to bring more people back.”

COVID-19 in B.C. 

These ambassadors across different campuses in B.C. are working to help flatten the escalating COVID-19 cases in the province, which have reached a record high of 6,929 active cases on Nov. 19.

Because of this, the original regional health orders that were put into effect Nov. 7 have been extended and altered province-wide, and will remain in effect until midnight on Dec. 7.

The new orders announced on Nov. 19 by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry are focusing on significantly reducing travel and social interactions at the individual, workplace, and business level.

Though TRU, SFU, and UFV already encourage mask-wearing on campuses, the new provincial health orders make wearing masks mandatory in indoor public spaces like university buildings, as well as in retail spaces.

Other parts of the order include limiting social interactions to those only in your immediate household or core bubble, restricting weddings and funerals with a safety plan to 10 people, and suspending in-person religious gatherings and worship services.

“COVID-19 is a virus that is proving to be a long road this pandemic, and this is the road that we must travel. It will have bumps and we’ll have challenges, and we are facing them today,” said Henry in a Nov. 19 press conference.

She acknowledged the toll this pandemic has been taking on young people’s lives and addressed them as “role models” and “inspirations” in helping fight COVID-19.

“Young people have proven that they have resilience, that you’re adaptable, and you’re brave, and I’m calling on all of you right now. I need you,” Henry said.

“I need you to be superheroes, to step up and hold the line and to help all of us get through this.”