The Thompson Rivers University (TRU) adventure guide program is a unique program which requires students to spend consecutive days in the backcountry practising skills that will help them start careers as guides. This year, the program has new protocols in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
This year, students of the adventure guide program will have to practice guiding guests while mitigating hazards such as logs while white water rafting, creavses on glaciers while mountaineering, or avalanches in the backcountry while skiing, and now the spread of COVID-19 between themselves, their peers, and their instructors.
Over the summer, the adventure program faculty developed a comprehensive COVID-19 safety plan to add to their program.
The plan was accepted by TRU’s health and safety board and was made to comply with the guidelines set out by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, said Jon Heshka, an associate professor at TRU who teaches risk management in the adventure program.
During the assessment of the program’s vulnerability to COVID-19, Heshka also stated there were unique parts of the program that required special attention.
“We appreciated that there were some pinch points where we were most exposed and that included for example, transportation, accommodation, and cooking and so we came up with protocols and procedures to minimize that risk to our students.”
Such changes include reducing the amount of students who are allowed in the vehicles from 15 to nine and everyone in the vehicle is required to wear a mask while travelling. Students are unable to cook for each other unless they are already housemates, and can’t share tents or any gear while in the field. Hand cleaning stations are set up at camp and special vehicle and equipment cleaning and sanitation procedures have been put in place considering students often need to rent gear from the school for the various rock climbing, skiing, surfing, or whitewater paddling courses.
Terry Palechuk who helps head the adventure program, says they are going so far as to do symptom checks each morning.
“We use an infrared thermometer and if somebody’s temperature is up then we continue with the other questions that we ask including are you having trouble breathing, do you have dry, hacking cough, etc etc. But temperature is one of those that we monitor for another 12 hours and then we move into more heightened protocols (including) more frequent cleaning, and if the temperature stays up then we move into an evacuation process, where we get the student out of the field to go get tested,” said Palechuk.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a complete stop to the adventure program’s spring field season this March, which meant students like Kyle Andrew, who were expected to complete their first year of the program, have to cram eight field courses into this fall semester to make up for last semester’s shortfall.
Even with the extra courses and added stress, Andrew said he’s happy with how the program is moving forward.
“There’s subtle changes, but it doesn’t feel like we’re missing out on the experience. If anything, it’s given us some practice in learning how to kind of move with the times a little bit. It’s part of the learning experience, we’ve even had to do some online courses pre-semester, including a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) course,” explained Andrew.
The adventure program hasn’t been completely free of COVID-19 scares however.
“Anything can happen,” said Palechuk.
One of the students’ roommates, who was not part of the adventure program, was in contact with a potential case. That student had to get removed from the field course which started the next day. The student was tested and fortunately the result was negative.
Faulty have scheduled the courses strategically, in case something like this happened.
“It’s kind of a staggered thing, and the intent with that was a few fold. One was to allow for deep cleaning of equipment and for it to sit in between programs, vehicles included…The other was is that if a student showed any kind of a sign or symptom early and had to be pulled out, you know, now they’ve got a week and a half so almost that 14 day period to get tested and get results back and potentially not miss anything actually as they move forward,” Palechuk added.
There are also some long term budget impacts coming down the pipe for the adventure program, Palechuk explained.
“The impact is more holistic with respect to TRU, but those trickle down to (the adventure program) and we aren’t immune to that. Even though we have a strong program, there may be some cuts. You know, there may be a full time position that’s not renewed and it becomes a sessional position. So we’re kind of experiencing that a little bit but how much further it goes I don’t know.”
With everything going on, Heshka said he feels optimistic about the unique program.
“I really do think that our program is meeting and exceeding the standards and expectations of us and it’s really hard to to manage COVID-19 in an environment where there’s so many moving parts in such a complex and dynamic environment where people will invariably get close to one another. But the precautions that we’ve got in place with respect to physical distancing, use of masks and washing of hands, I think are, are real good.”