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Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey smiles as he holds up a syringe of the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine ready to administered in the province, at Memorial University in St. John's, Dec. 16, 2020. Newfoundland and Labrador's only university is requiring its students, staff and faculty to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to wear non-medical masks on campus.Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

As universities in Atlantic Canada issue vaccination mandates, students and staff are raising questions about how the health orders will be implemented once classes resume, especially regarding international students.

On Friday, Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador became the latest school in the region to issue a vaccine mandate. COVID-19 shots will be required for all staff, faculty and students, and masks will be mandatory in all public areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained, Memorial’s provost said.

The announcement came with few concrete details, and Kat McLaughlin, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador, said the unknowns have compounded anxieties for students heading into another uncertain year.

“A lot of the conversation has been, ‘Are we in support of this, or against it?”’ McLaughlin said in an interview Monday. “I think the conversation really should be, ‘What does this look like, and how are we going to navigate complications?”’

Universities in Atlantic Canada have taken an uneven approach to vaccine mandates.

Cape Breton University is requiring students living in residence to be immunized, while other Nova Scotia schools like Halifax’s Dalhousie University are strongly encouraging vaccines but not requiring them.

The University of New Brunswick, meanwhile, is not mandating vaccines — but they’re required at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, N.B., and St. Thomas University, in Fredericton.

“The St. Thomas University Students’ Union supports this decision,” said union president Tyler McGee in an email Monday. “Having said that, we do have the following questions,” he wrote, and then listed four questions, including how students’ vaccination status will be verified and what will happen for international students.

“How will international students who have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated/students with medical reasons preventing vaccinations be integrated into campus life?” McGee asked. He said he expected more information from the school this week.

McLaughlin said fairness for international students is at the top of her federation’s concerns.

“A lot of students in other parts of the world have received vaccinations that are not the vaccinations that are approved here in Canada,” she said. “Does it mean they need to get different vaccinations — is it possible to get different vaccinations? Those are questions that we don’t really know the answers to.”

It’s regrettable Memorial announced the policy so late in the summer and so close to the school year, McLaughlin said, adding that many international students have already planned their travel to St. John’s and registered for courses. In general, students are already feeling like they don’t have enough information about what this upcoming year will look like, and this latest development only adds to the uncertainty, she said.

Memorial University officials said they will provide more concrete details about the mandatory vaccine policy in the coming weeks. The school’s faculty association says that information is desperately needed.

“While faculty are ultimately happy with this decision, we are deeply disappointed that conversations on this subject have been taking place for months with no consultation of students, faculty, or staff,” association president Bill Schipper said in an email Monday.

“Much of the stress and confusion that members of our community are now facing could have been prevented if conversations were had with all stakeholders more than just a couple of short weeks before the semester begins.”

Schipper said the faculty association has been calling on school administration to improve access to vaccine information for students — especially international students — and to offer vaccination clinics on campus.

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