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Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto and AstraZeneca Professor of Organic Chemistry. He has received funding and research support from AstraZeneca.

There is something in the air – and I urge you to rush outside and experience it at your first opportunity. Dare I say, inhale it – though preferably two metres away and upwind from everyone else.

Do that, and a dramatic experience awaits: Locals across the country are smiling, ear-to-ear, in cities big and small.

Freedom 2021.

A lot has happened over the past 15 months, certainly here in Canada, and not much of it good. We’ve endured being stuck indoors, with many of us forced to work from home or learn remotely. Stores were closed or limited to curbside offerings; restaurants had to settle for serving takeout.

Lives and jobs have been lost. Businesses have collapsed. Hospitals and personal-care workers have been constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed. The last thing we want is to take a step back into that nightmare, especially since all that was wrong before the pandemic is still wrong: Social inequality has been further exposed, and financial inequality has been only exacerbated under the pandemic. And let’s face it: We are not done with the virus, and the virus is not done with us.

So how do we square the circle of the joy we’re feeling now, as we return to near-normal life, as a new semester in institutions of higher learning looms?

Compared to the 2020 cohort, most of whom never met their profs, the incoming class will be in an enviable situation: In-person learning is at least a viable option. I’ve even crossed paths with a few students from last year, and they’ve noted how much taller I am in person than on Zoom. But for all the excitement, new questions are being posed. Will all students, faculty and staff be vaccinated? Should this be mandated and enforced? And if so, by whom?

Here are the challenges, from where I stand. Imagine that you and 145 people you haven’t yet met are sitting in my medium-sized (and well-ventilated) lecture theatre. You are excited and stressed and nervous in this new environment. It is your first day of university.

You find yourself in very close proximity with these strangers. Is your compatriot on your left or right vaccinated? Were they out last night, meeting new people, making friends and embracing university life? Did they go inside, or stay outside?

Then, at the front of the class, stands your professor, who, like me, may be getting close to being eligible for seniors’ discounts. They begin by outlining the plans for the new semester and describe the excitement they feel for their subject – in my case, chemistry – before outlining the syllabus, test dates and office hours.

Students are required to wear masks in class. But are professors to be tasked with enforcing that rule, insisting that students sitting 20 rows from the front in a large class must pull up or put on their masks? How will that go for a newly hired junior prof without tenure? Grumpy big guys like me might be a bit more persuasive, but that’s not an experiment I’d like to run. How should a prof react at the end of class, when students usually rush to the front and crowd around to ask for clarification, book an appointment or just listen in when others ask questions – these one-on-one interactions that have brought me joy for more than 30 years, and are actually the best part of teaching? I do not want to lose this part of the student experience, but I also want to protect myself and others.

Meanwhile, I have had a parent write to me urging us to not require students in residence to be vaccinated – an awfully low bar to demand of students in the first place, in community-living situations. Some are still resistant to protect themselves and others.

The freshman class of 2021 is about to embark on adult life, and start making their own choices. As educators, we don’t want to waste this learning opportunity. So what role can we play to overcome hesitancy?

For my part, I would feel most comfortable in my classroom if every single person who could be vaccinated received their jab before coming to campus. That way, students can fully enjoy the educational experience, meet a diverse new group of people and party hard, all while protecting themselves, dormmates, faculty and staff (or, for those still living at home, parents and grandparents).

Getting vaccinated has likely protected the vast majority of us from ending up in an intensive-care unit or dying. Now that is worth celebrating.

But as we inhale deeply in this moment of pandemic freedom, why risk taking a step back, when we all have so much life ahead?

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