Many Alberta post-secondary schools are not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for students and staff even as others across the country are making different choices.
The University of Calgary, University of Alberta, Mount Royal University in Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and it’s northern counterpart say they will strongly encourage vaccination, but won’t go so far as to mandate it.
The schools’ decisions come as Alberta sees a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Over the last three days, 1,407 new cases were identified to bring the active case count to 5,354.
There were 161 people in hospital on Monday, including 43 in intensive care – jumps of nine and six, respectively, since Thursday.
Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary professor who specializes in health law and policy, said there are overlapping concerns that threaten the safety of students and staff if stronger measures are not brought into post-secondary environments.
Hardcastle is one of 21 members of the university’s law faculty who penned a letter to leadership asking for mandatory masking and vaccine requirements for the upcoming school year.
Aerosol transmission of COVID-19, lower vaccination rates among Albertans in their 20s, the highly contagious Delta variant and easing of all provincial health restrictions – currently on pause until mid-September – are among Hardcastle’s list of concerns.
She said the decision by Alberta post-secondary institutions to opt-out of mandating vaccines “must be political in nature,” considering schools in other provinces are doing the opposite.
“The main legal argument that comes up against mandatory vaccine is the charter. It’s not actually clear the charter applies to universities, or to this particular university decision,” Hardcastle said.
“There doesn’t seem to be much of a legal barrier as long as universities design a vaccination program that complies with provincial human rights law, so (it) accommodates people who can’t get vaccinated.”
While a schoolwide vaccine requirement is still a novel concept, Hardcastle said lesser precedents already exist.
Dental and clinical students, for example, must be vaccinated against certain diseases, she said.
Mount Royal University has said that “provincial and federal legal landscapes” would make it challenging to implement a vaccine directive due to disclosure of personal health information.
In an updated statement Monday, the university said: “There are many signs of change when it comes to requirements for people to disclose and/or be vaccinated. We will continue to monitor and assess these changes.”
Mount Royal will require masks to be worn in all classrooms, labs and in settings of 20 or more people.
Hardcastle said she hopes other Alberta post-secondary schools go further, including her own employer.
Another letter, signed by more than 500 people from her university’s community by Monday afternoon, is calling on leadership to bring in stricter public health measures on campus.
The university has said masks will remain mandatory in clinical and transportation settings, but will otherwise be recommended in all buildings and residences. Vaccines are strongly encouraged.
“Vaccines protect us all. They are highly effective against all known variants, especially for severe disease,” said the university in a statement posted Aug. 10.
A campus survey done by the university showed almost 94 per cent of 11,426 respondents were fully vaccinated or planned to be before the fall term begins. Provost and vice-president academic Teri Balsersuggested that shows the community has a “very high level of vaccination.”
She acknowledged there are limitations to that type of data collection.
A growing number of schools are taking an opposite approach than in Alberta – including major research universities such as the University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, University of Saskatchewan and Western University. On Friday, at least four other Ontario institutions joined the vaccination tide, as did the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.
Some post-secondary schools in Canada continue to debate the question and have yet to offer a firm position with only weeks left until the return of classes.
The president of the University of British Columbia has voiced support for a mandate and is talking with the provincial government.
Manitoba is following a similar course to Alberta. Many of its post-secondary institutions – including the University of Winnipeg, University of Brandon and Red River College – have said COVID-19 vaccinations are not required come fall but are strongly encouraged.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccine rollout, said universities are best-equipped to make their own decisions to protect students and staff, without provincial interference.
“With cases being low, we’re at a really great time in our COVID experience,” said Reimer.
“But that doesn’t mean that will remain the case, so we need to be keeping all these tools available and looking at the effectiveness, looking at the pros and cons, of every tool, including options to require vaccines in certain locations.”
– With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg.
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