The University of Ottawa will make vaccination mandatory for in-class learning, becoming only the second postsecondary school in Canada to do so amid growing calls from students and professors for stronger measures.
The university joins Toronto’s Seneca College, which said in June that inoculation would be required for students returning to campus. But Canadian universities and colleges are largely shunning mandatory shots, instead relying on a patchwork of rules that require vaccinations for living in residences or playing sports. Thousands of students will return to class in four weeks, the approximate time Health Canada authorizes between COVID-19 vaccine doses.
The University of Ottawa revealed its mandate on Tuesday, and a news release on its website says the decision was based on the presence of new variants, and the low vaccination rate in young adults.
Data from Health Canada show that 51 per cent of adults aged 18 to 29 were fully vaccinated by July 31. Meanwhile, the national seven-day moving average rose to 1,000 daily cases on Aug. 8, an increase of 326 from the week prior, largely owing to the spread of the Delta variant.
Richard Gold, professor of law and medicine at McGill University, said postsecondary institutions in Canada have an obligation to implement a vaccine mandate to protect the health of students. More than 600 U.S. schools require vaccination to attend in-person classes in the fall.
“The university has to protect its population and can’t discriminate against those who are vulnerable,” he said, adding that the challenge with a vaccine mandate is that it can be difficult to force students to undergo medical procedures. A possible solution, he said, is requiring students to show proof of vaccination to attend campus, or take COVID-19 tests, which are less invasive, two or three times a week.
“This would be a reasonable policy. It would take into account the privacy of others [by not disclosing vaccination status], and fundamentally meets the obligation of the university not to discriminate [against the vulnerable],” he said, adding that some people have medical reasons for not getting the shot.
Many Ontario universities will demand proof of inoculation for some student activities. Western, Ryerson and Wilfrid Laurier require students to be vaccinated to live in campus residences, while Carleton, Guelph and the University of Ottawa also require full inoculation to participate in varsity sports. The University of Waterloo will oblige unvaccinated students and employees who wish to go to campus to be tested twice a week, but has announced no vaccine mandate. Masks are still required in all indoor public settings in the province, including universities.
The University of Toronto will require students, faculty, staff and librarians who take part in activities with a high risk of COVID-19 transmission – such as varsity sports, music instruction and educational placements – to be vaccinated. Half of the university’s 16,000 courses will be delivered on campus in the fall. Students and faculty will also have to declare whether they are vaccinated in an online form, information that will be considered in any updates to health and safety measures.
Exemptions will be available for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or because of sincerely held beliefs related to religion or creed. Those exempted may be subject to added public-health measures for in-person activity. A University of Toronto spokesperson said the 96 per-cent rate of 18- to 24-year-olds in Toronto with at least one dose factored into the decisions on the vaccination policy.
Several petitions from students and faculty of Ontario universities called for mandatory immunization for any on-campus activity. But Peter A. Newman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, said he fears vaccine mandates could divide campuses into political factions and open vaccine-hesitant individuals to shaming.
He said that if universities require students to be immunized, they should ensure everybody who wants a vaccine has access. That includes international students, who could have received doses not recognized by Health Canada, and need to be vaccinated again.
“I think the first step is to make vaccines extraordinarily convenient and accessible on campus,” Dr. Newman said. “Let’s try that first.”
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry told reporters on Thursday that people will not be denied an education because of their immunization status. University of British Columbia’s president, Santa Ono, addressed the school’s approach in a letter on Aug. 4, saying he strongly recommended all members of the UBC community be fully vaccinated before returning to campus and wear masks indoors. But students and faculty members say they are concerned that not mandating vaccination could lead to outbreaks.
Alan Richardson, president of the UBC Faculty Association, called on Dr. Ono on Monday to adopt a vaccine mandate for all employees and students to alleviate the anxiety and ensure a secure learning environment. Sylvia Fuller, a professor of sociology at UBC, said she would like stricter rules.
“I think that mandating vaccines, with reasonable alternatives for those legitimate reasons to not be vaccinated, will reduce everyone’s risk of contracting COVID-19, and it’s particularly important for people who have limited protection from vaccination themselves,” Dr. Fuller said.
Eshana Bhangu, the vice-president of UBC’s student union, said less than half of respondents in a survey of 8,000 students are confident in their university’s return-to-campus plan. The union last month urged executives and the board of governors to mandate vaccinations in student residences and masks in lecture halls.
“I think students are very unhappy right now with UBC because they expect more,” Ms. Bhangu said. “They’re looking to their university to make the place they call home feel safe enough to actually be their home.”
Hundreds of students, staff and faculty members at Simon Fraser University have signed a letter calling for vaccine mandates for students living in residences, and a similar letter urges the University of Alberta to require anybody attending campus to be immunized.
University of Alberta’s president and vice-chancellor, Bill Flanagan, wrote on Friday that some members of the university’s COVID-19 planning oversight committee have recommended against mandatory vaccination “after a thorough assessment of the university’s complex human rights, privacy, legal, and collective agreement obligations.”
Regarding mask-wearing, Mr. Flanagan said the University of Alberta will be consistent with the positions of the Alberta government and the City of Edmonton: Non-medical masks are no longer mandatory on campus. However, he noted, faculty, staff and students can choose to wear them.
Universities in Atlantic Canada encourage vaccination, but only Cape Breton University requires it to live in residence. Health guidelines in Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador require unvaccinated individuals from outside Atlantic Canada to self-isolate.
Dalhousie will deliver most classes online, and will encourage but not mandate vaccination because the province is on track to fully vaccinate 75 per cent of its residents and enter the final phase of reopening by September, said associate director of media relations Janet Bryson. Acadia, UPEI, Saint Mary’s and the University of New Brunswick also plan to urge students to get their shots, but will not require it.
Quebec Universities will let students return to classes with or without vaccination, Premier François Legault said on Monday, but only those who are fully vaccinated can participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports.
Quebec Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann said last week that universities will not be expected to uphold physical distancing and masking requirements in the classroom in the fall.
Genevieve O’Meara, senior adviser of media relations at the University of Montreal, said the campus will have vaccination clinics, and officials will monitor Quebec’s rules, which are fast evolving since a provincial vaccine passport was announced last week.
“In the coming days,” she said, “we will learn more about our provincial guidelines, and then our university will act accordingly.”
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