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Friday, September 24, 2021

Should post-secondary schools mandate vaccines for on-campus learning?

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TORONTO — With a new school year quickly approaching and COVID-19 case numbers going up across Canada, some are beginning to ask whether post-secondary institutions should require staff and students to be vaccinated if they want to learn on campus.

Seneca College in the Greater Toronto Area was the first post-secondary school in the country to set the bar on mandated vaccinations on campus. The school will allow individuals with at least one dose on campus, but it comes with caveat: a grace period to get a second shot.

“Our policy is that you have to be vaccinated to come on campus, whether you’re a student, whether you’re an employee, whether you’re a visitor,” David Agnew, president of Seneca College, told CTV News.

Agnew said that while others have taken a stance on mandatory vaccinations in residencies, his school is the only one in Canada to have a comprehensive policy.

“So far we’re the only [one] in the country to take this position. We have lots of company south of the border and its good company to be in, whether it’s Harvard or MIT, or Berkeley or Yale,” he said.

According to research conducted by Western University’s Health Ethics, Law, & Policy (HELP) Lab, only five of Canada’s top 15 research universities (U15) will mandate vaccinations for students living within residences. The University of Toronto will additionally require vaccination for students and faculty who “engage in activities with a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission,” while the University of Ottawa will require a mandate for student-athletes.

In British Columbia, public post-secondary institutions, including the University of British Columbia (UBC), are following the direction of the provincial government and regional health authorities, which haven’t recommended mandatory vaccinations.

“As you know, case numbers have begun to rise recently and the highly contagious Delta variant is becoming more prevalent. Because of this, I strongly recommend that all members of the UBC community are fully vaccinated, before returning to campus,” UBC president Santa J. Ono said in a letter on Thursday. 

Cases in the province have been steadily rising, with B.C. recording more than 400 new infections on Friday, its highest single-day total since May. On Friday, the province announced new restrictions, including limits on indoor dining, in the Central Okanagan region. 

Ono said in his statement that the situation is fluid and that risk assessments are being carried out in real time.

An example of this could play out very shortly, as UBC has a campus in the Okanagan region. The outbreak has spurred school officials to purchase a “significant supply of non-medical masks so that we are ready to implement a campus-wide strategy if advised by the PHO.”

FACULTY AND STUDENTS REACT

Dr. Marco Prado, a professor of anatomy and cellular biology at Western University in London, Ont., is feeling anxious about being in a room with hundreds of students and not knowing who has been vaccinated.

“Vaccines come and exist because of the work we do at universities,” Prado says. “We should be leading. The science is clear, those vaccines are safe and we should be implementing this.”

Prado and other faculty have spoken out about their concerns, going as far as saying if COVID-19 cases spike and the situation is no longer safe, they would look for alternative accommodations.

“One of those accommodations is we probably won’t be able to teach in person,” he says. “We do feel, however, that if there is enough planning, if there are vaccine mandates, it would be safer for all of us to be in-person.”

In his opinion, “if people don’t want to be vaccinate then they shouldn’t be in a room with a thousand other people.”

Toby Wuirala, a life science student at the University of Toronto, says the situation would just be easier if everybody at the school was vaccinated.

“When universities are not mandating it, personally, I think it’s a bit of a fence-sitter approach, like you’re trying to appeal to all sides,” Wuirala says, who is double vaccinated. “I’d say like mandate it for everybody who can and have exceptions for people with extenuating circumstances.”

Fully vaccinated Alex Bentz, a student at McGill University, says he would feel more comfortable if everyone on campus was vaccinated.

“Why not just have it as a requirement and maybe offer remote learning for unvaccinated students.”

WHO SHOULD LEAD POLICY?

The federal government has left provinces and territories in charge of creating their own guidelines around proof of vaccination or vaccine passports, with some exceptions.

Last month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford ruled out the possibility of a vaccine passport for the province, telling reporters on July 15, “We’re not going have a split society.”

Quebec on Thursday said they would bring in vaccine passports so those vaccinated can enter non-essential businesses. However, it is unclear if that would reach the halls of post-secondary schools.

Western University professor Maxwell Smith, who in April led the World Health Organization in forming some general ethical guidance on mandating vaccines, believes there’s a growing appetite for a vaccine mandate by post-secondary institutions and that policy should be led by the government.

“If we’re thinking about fairness and consistency, I think it would make a lot of sense for provinces to say look, this is the justification for having such a policy or not, and this should apply across the board so that we make sure that our students no matter where they go, have the same sort of protections in place,” he says.

He adds that there’s a misconception that mandates, such as those for vaccines, infringe on people’s rights, but that’s not the case.

“Mandates never involve forcing people to get vaccinated. They’re simply conditions that people must meet in order to do certain activities,” he says.

As an example, if someone wants to live in residence, a condition they would need to meet is being vaccinated, he says. 

“You can absolutely still say no to being vaccinated, you’ll just not be able to live in residence. It’s still a meaningful choice you can make,” Smith says. “When we’re talking about rights, it’s really also important at the same time to be talking about our responsibilities to one another.”

Agnew has a similar perspective.

“This isn’t a charter issue, this isn’t a privacy issue, this is a health issue. We have a raging pandemic around the globe that has killed millions, that will continue to kill many, many people. We have to do out part to contain it.”

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