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opinion

Manish Raizada is a professor and molecular geneticist at the University of Guelph.

After I got my two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, I felt as giddy about returning to classrooms this September as I did before my first class 20 years ago. As I watched vaccination numbers surge over the summer, I believed all my students would come back to campus vaccinated; if they didn’t, I thought that my university’s leaders would mandate it.

Now, that giddiness is gone.

About 30 per cent of Canadians in the post-secondary age group remain fully unvaccinated. And our leaders have left us unprepared: In Quebec, post-secondary students will be allowed to remove their masks after they sit in class, as if the novel coronavirus prefers a standing position; in Alberta, no masking is required at all.

Meanwhile, a handful of Canadian schools have recently announced that they would require those on campus to be vaccinated, but many of them will only do so through “self-attestation,” which requires no actual proof. Those plans also come too late for a safe September start, since three to four weeks are required between doses of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, and another two weeks are needed to develop antibodies. Indeed, other than Seneca College, all Canadian colleges and universities missed that Jul. 28 deadline.

Now, I fear that there will be lockdowns coming soon due to campus-sparked COVID-19 outbreaks. I dread teaching from my basement again to faceless student icons on Zoom. I dread having to again use the chat box for human interaction, as if I was working for a customer-support website.

I dread giving exams using Respondus Monitor, which records students through their devices’ cameras, detects body movements to identify potential cheating and provides camera footage to professors to review. Many post-secondary institutions say they cannot ask students whether they are vaccinated for privacy reasons; oddly, those same schools have encouraged professors to watch movie-length videos of those same students in their bedrooms, instead.

I dread having again to ask A+ students why they missed a midterm, already knowing the answer: isolation-induced depression.

Ensuring that all students were vaccinated prior to September was critical. A U.S. study of 30 universities showed that 14 of them experienced spikes in the first two weeks of class last year. The spikes were tenfold higher than countrywide peaks and caused surges in surrounding communities – and this was before the rise of the more infectious Delta variant.

With around 2 million post-secondary students expected to return to campus – unmasked in crowded cafeterias, sitting tightly among hundreds of others in classrooms and partying indoors – I can’t help but worry. I worry about immunocompromised students and students with disabilities, who will be forced away from campus by those who have decided to remain unvaccinated. I worry about them, too – the unvaccinated students who will catch the Delta variant during the school year. I worry about the 5 to 10 per cent of fully vaccinated students who will become infected, as the virus continues to surge without herd immunity. I worry about students’ parents, unvaccinated siblings and strangers in the community.

It is true that few students are likely to die. But a recent study showed that 52 per cent of the infected 16- to 30-year-olds surveyed have developed long-haul COVID-19, which has debilitating symptoms. And our leaders have offered up illogical plans to avoid this situation.

If these schools’ plans are being informed by civil-liberty lawyers, they’re getting bad advice. Indeed, top Canadian law professors have contradicted the strategies, suggesting that Canada’s Constitution would allow schools to require vaccination.

That’s why I hope vaccinated students and their parents hire lawyers of their own.

I hope, if more lockdowns come, students demand refunds on their tuition fees. After all, each class I teach costs a student or parent about $900; by paying that, they are expecting me to perform and educate, and to receive hands-on laboratory practice. They pay $900 expecting the full experience of post-secondary life, including the joy and angst of befriending new people. They enter into a contract with colleges and universities by paying the $900, which, if an avoidable lockdown happens, the schools will be forced to break due to their own decisions.

Perhaps post-secondary institutions have resisted serious vaccine mandates because they fear losing the tuition fees of the unvaccinated-by-choice. But universities have already lost this revenue: In my first-year class, for instance, more than 150 students typically register, but last year there were 92, and only 100 students are registered this year. Had my university created a safe sanctuary, surely enrolment would have rebounded. More students would have pursued their dreams.

Now the only resurgence this September will be COVID-19. And that will only be exacerbated by schools’ less-than-educated decisions.

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