Good morning! Wendy Cox here this morning.
With case counts soaring in British Columbia and Alberta and university students headed back into classes after spending a year online, Globe reporters have been asking a straightforward, yes-or-no question, with little luck in getting an answer.
Will universities in both provinces bring in requirements for students and staff to be vaccinated before classes start? And further, can these universities make the decision on their own? Or do they have to fall in line with whatever the province tells them?
On Tuesday, universities in Alberta answered that question. Sort of.
Ontario universities started announcing last week they would require staff, students and faulty to be vaccinated – the University of Ottawa, Queen’s, the University of Toronto, and many others. Also last week, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina joined in. Those who are not vaccinated must undergo regular testing.
But in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has repeatedly said he does not support vaccine passports, save for those that will facilitate international travel. He has had a testy relationship with the province’s universities. Post-secondary leaders in Alberta previously said they would not – or could not – impose vaccine mandates.
On Tuesday, the University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Lethbridge declared they would require testing, not compulsory vaccines. Those who are already vaccinated will not have to undergo mandatory testing.
“It is a cute little way around it,” Lisa Young, a political scientist at the UofC, said. “I assume that mandatory vaccination was not going to be permitted by the province.”
In British Columbia, faculty at the University of British Columbia and at the University of Victoria have been increasingly strident in their demands for B.C. schools to follow suit.
The current Return to Campus guidelines issued by the province say that as of Sept. 7, mask-wearing is a personal choice, and classes can be scheduled without physical-distancing requirements.
UBC president Santa Ono said at the beginning of August that he strongly recommended all members of the UBC community be fully vaccinated and wear masks indoors. In an updated message posted last Friday, he said he has told the provincial government that he is “supportive of mandatory indoor masking and vaccination.”
But in an internal e-mail to deans and program heads at the University of Victoria, obtained by The Globe and Mail, B.C.’s deputy minister for advanced education was clear.
“Post-secondary institutions should not introduce COVID-19 prevention measures that are different from those supported by public health professionals,” reads the e-mail from Shannon Baskerville, sent July 29.
Ms. Baskerville said the current guidelines approved by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry “remain in effect today and have not changed, nor are any changes being considered.”
Last Thursday, Dr. Henry was asked if universities had been told not to bring in their own mandatory vaccination policies. She responded: “We’ve never told anybody not to do things. What we have done is said let’s work together on finding the best possible approaches.”
Dr. Henry’s office is responsible for providing guidance to policy-makers within the government. It is government that sets policy.
When asked Tuesday if B.C. universities could bring in their own vaccination mandates – a yes-or-no question – B.C.’s Ministry of Health said public health officials are currently reviewing the guidelines in consultation with the post-secondary sector and will have more to say in the coming days.
With classes to begin within a few short weeks, Lynne Marks, president of the University of Victoria Faculty Association, said her members are becoming increasingly alarmed.
“People are very, very anxious at UVic and we’re really hoping to hear direction from the government as soon as possible,” Dr. Marks said.
She said the faculty association is “very, very frustrated and very worried for our members who are extremely worried, and they’re really trying to figure out what they can do in the current context.”