Richard Gold is a professor in McGill’s Faculty of Law and Faculty of Medicine. Joanne Liu is a professor at McGill’s School of Population and Global Health.
When you look at Canada’s biggest universities, McGill is an outlier. The Montreal university has some of the weakest measures for preventing transmission of COVID-19. Where many universities follow best practices and are pro-active in preventing infections on campus and in their communities, McGill has taken the attitude that everything will simply turn out okay. We have seen this story before and it never turns out well.
Across Canada, all major universities, except for those in Quebec, have moved to a proof-of-vaccination requirement and are using other measures, such as masking, testing and capacity limits. While no Quebec university has yet implemented a proof-of-vaccination requirement, others have done more to protect their students and faculty by reducing class sizes and allowing faculty to teach online.
While McGill requires masks for students in classrooms, they aren’t required for faculty while lecturing. Some very large classes have been moved online, but most are still happening in person, and there’s no physical distancing in classrooms, some of which are crowded. Instructors are reporting that some rooms have poor ventilation or none at all. Following provincial guidelines, students need proof of vaccination to do extracurricular activities, campus pubs and restaurants and also libraries, but don’t need it to enter classrooms. There is no routine testing and communication about outbreaks is inconsistent.
McGill had promised students that campus would be safe – not with zero risk but with reasonable risk. Instead, it puts students, such as organ recipients or pregnant women, at even higher risk, even if they are vaccinated. McGill has let down those students and staff and faculty who rely on the university to maintain an adequate level of safety.
Nor does Quebec’s declaration that its vaccine passport will not apply to higher education as an “essential” service impede McGill from implementing its own proof-of-vaccination requirement. For the tiny fraction of students who have a valid health or religious reason to refuse vaccination, frequent negative test results would allow them to remain on campus. For the even tinier fraction of students who simply refuse to be vaccinated, it is possible to maintain access to education through online options and classroom recordings.
McGill’s current policy effectively excludes many students: the immunocompromised, those with underlying health conditions and those who care for people at risk. The university is doing this in order to preserve the ability of those who choose not to be vaccinated and who have no valid medical or religious exemption to attend the university.
Looking at statistics from the United States, this latter group is extremely small. In the entire University of Virginia, which has a student population of more than 27,000, the number of students not permitted to enroll because of lack of vaccination this fall was 49.
One of McGill’s contentions is that it cannot adopt a proof-of-vaccination requirement because Quebec law prohibits it. Yet not only have 35 of its own law professors and instructors said otherwise, but the rector of the Université de Montréal, Daniel Jutras, acknowledged as much. There is no law or human rights provision that prevents the university, in a time of declared pandemic, from bringing in the same common-sense requirements that virtually every other major Canadian and U.S. university has implemented.
If McGill truly believed that the law prevents it from acting, then one would expect it to argue with the province to reverse this law. Instead, McGill, in a submission with all other universities in the province, argued before a National Assembly committee that the government should not require universities to require proof of vaccination. That is, the university is lobbying against the single health measure that its own School of Population and Global Health said was key to fighting COVID-19.
There is no doubt that figuring out how to implement measures fairly and within budget is a challenge. But the fact is that other major Canadian universities have already done so. Those universities are reporting great success. Since bringing in its proof-of-vaccination requirement, the University of Western Ontario reported that 98 per cent of its students are now vaccinated. McGill estimates that 86 per cent of its students are vaccinated. This means that in a typical class of 100 students, there are 14 unvaccinated students, compared with only two at Western.
By falling behind other major universities, McGill is putting its most vulnerable at risk. It is refusing to put common sense and public-health evidence into practice. It needs to do more or vulnerable people will be harmed on its campus.
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