Most of you have been preoccupied (if not swallowed up whole) by the orientation, move-in and start-of-term frenzy on your campus. As for me, though, I wanted to circle back once more to chronicle the COVID19 pandemic’s impact on a third September.
Now I know, members of Eduvation Circles showed very little interest in a summary of Fall term COVID19 restrictions this year, and perhaps that’s unsurprising: their institutions have imposed decisions already, and in many provinces all mask and vax mandates appear to be completely washed away. It might feel like a non-issue to many readers.
But it’s not actually a simple picture out there: although almost all CdnPSEs have dropped all mask and vax requirements this Fall, I count 25 universities and 1 polytechnic with continued mask mandates, and even 4 CdnPSEs with vax mandates. (No, not just Western!)
And as usual, no matter what decision campus leaders made, there was plenty of outrage and anxiety on all sides, from students, faculty, staff and concerned outsiders. Internal communications and media relations folks have had their hands full…
As we enter our third September under the cloud of COVID19, things feel decidedly different on campus: as Concordia U president Graham Carr says, it looks like “relative normalcy.” (uSherbrooke’s welcome message has the unfortunate translation, “we are excited and feverish to meet you on our campuses.” En français, it reads “enthousiastes et fébriles.” Surely a better choice of words was possible…)
Top 50 Lean on Vaccines
Covid Safe Campus reports that only 8 of the top 50 US universities, and just 6 of the top 25 public health schools, are mandating masks anywhere on campus this Fall. (This reflects the fact that the US CDC dropped social-distancing and masking requirements.) They report, though, that 80% of the top 50 universities have retained vaccine requirements (even though in many jurisdictions, state lawmakers have forbidden institutionsfrom mandating vaccinations). Advocates for the immunocompromised urge institutions to improve access to remote learning options: “There is still time for universities to be leaders in creating policies or reinstating policies that promote equity inclusion through making students safer and through providing hybrid access.”
In CdnPSE, the situation appears different. With the help of some members of Eduvation Circles, I’ve tracked the COVID19 policies of about 150 CdnPSEs in this spreadsheet. Here’s what I found…
The vast majority of CdnPSEs are returning to campus this month without any vaccine requirements or mandatory mask policies in place, although all “strongly encourage” vaccinations and urge the campus community to be compassionate with each other. Many, like Queen’s, are calling themselves “mask-friendly” campuses. Some, like uGuelph and Laurier, are promising to offer students the option of some “mask only” study spaces. And pretty much every institution will continue to require masks in medical and health-related classrooms, labs, and clinical settings, where a regulatory body has imposed a mask mandate. (Whether they mention it or not, of course, depends upon the political climate in their province.) Only 1 CdnPSE I noticed has entirely suspended their COVID19 information webpage: Georgian College.
“Our students breathe so much life into our community and we’re thrilled to have them back this fall.” – Kathleen Massey, AVP Students, uLethbridge
Pretty much all CdnPSEs have dropped their self-check apps and requirements before coming to campus, although some still have symptoms checklists posted at entry points, and many urge a “daily self-assessment” (like UBC and UBCO). Most are urging students and staff to stay home if they feel sick, although few have explained whether any additional sick leave or academic accommodations will be available.
Masks may be “encouraged” or even “strongly encouraged” on every CdnPSE campus, but it’s a mask mandate desert in BC, AB, SK, and QC. (It appears as though Quest U still requires masks in classrooms, I think, although the latest update is from March!) Canadian Press reports that 14 out of 83 universities across the country will be requiring facemasks indoors, although in many cases the requirement applies only to classrooms and labs. Based on my review, it’s actually 25, including Quest in BC, 2 in MB (uManitoba and Booth UC), 10 in Ontario (Brock, Huron, King’s UC, Laurentian, NOSM, OCAD, Ontario Tech, Western, Laurier, and Windsor), 4 in NB (Mount Allison, UNB, NBCCD, and St Thomas U), 6 in NS (Acadia, Dal, U King’s College, MSVU, Saint Mary’s, StFX), 1 in PEI (UPEI), and 1 in NL (Memorial). Wilfrid Laurier Uexplains that “wearing masks in these higher-capacity, close-proximity settings will help to limit the spread of COVID19 within our community.” In some cases, the masking policy was clearly in response to faculty pressure. In the case of Brock U, the decision looks influenced by the acting CMOH in Niagara Region, Mustafa Hirji, who publicly warned the media he was “absolutely fearful” of a Fall COVID19 wave without such measures. Seneca College stands out as the only polytechnic or college in the country with a mask mandate in classrooms this Fall (see below).
“I fully support Brock University in bucking popular sentiment and putting science and the safety of students and staff first.” – Mustafa Hirji, acting CMOH, Niagara Region
Passing the Buck
Most CdnPSEs explain that they are merely following direction from their provincial CMOH, which obviously reduces their legal and PR risks. The BC CDC, for example, has directed BCpses that “use of face coverings is a personal choice,” a line echoed verbatim in many BCpse announcements. In Ontario, where many CdnPSE outliers have announced vax and mask mandates for the Fall, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities has been urging them “to follow provincial guidelines rather than institute their own.” For 10 universities and at least 1 college in the province, that urging appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
“The ongoing COVID19 pandemic will continue to shape the on-campus experience of students and employees alike in 2022-23. Surges of cases over the last few months have resulted in increased hospitalizations and additional pressures on our health-care system, with analysts predicting continued waves into the fall and beyond.” – John Tibbits, president, Conestoga College
Queen’s U is not mandating vaccination or requiring proof, but did “ask students to declare their vaccination status when they booked their time-slot to move into residences.” uGuelph and Carleton U are asking their campus communities to self-report their vaccine status.
Hedging Our Bets
Of course, regardless of the position institutions take, they are warning that, as epidemiological conditions change, they may need to re-evaluate and either loosen or tighten restrictions accordingly. uWaterloo president Vivek Goel, himself an epidemiologist, advised the campus that “this fall promises to be as unpredictable as any other point in this pandemic.” Queen’s U advises that, should it need to reinstate its mandates, those who cannot provide proof of vaccination “could find their in-person university activities restricted or discontinued,” potentially impacting classes, residence, and employment status. Conestoga College says “students are encouraged to keep up to date with COVID19 vaccines to avoid disruptions to their educational experience should it be necessary to reinstate the policy.” McMaster U is continuing to require proof of vaccination (or an official exemption) for all new employee hires, and the campus community is encouraged to upload proof of up to 4 doses to its MacCheck app (as are members of the uToronto community). In a unique move, Manitoba’s UC of the North told CTV News it is “implementing planned periods of remote learning to account for periods when spikes in infections can be predicted” (specifically following Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Reading Week).
“The one predictable thing about COVID is that it’s unpredictable. And it requires us to keep our eye on what’s going on to regularly reassess what we’re doing and then to maintain flexibility.” – Kathy Wilson, acting VP Academic, UNB
As SFU puts it, we all need to be “understanding and compassionate of people’s individual circumstances and individual choices about masks.” A chorus of campus leaders across the country are singing from that same song sheet. I noticed a unique advisory at Crandall U in NB, explaining that “some instructors may have a medically sound need to ask students to continue mask use while attending specific classes,” and asking students to “be mindful of the potential medical necessity of continuing to use masks in specific classes/labs if their instructor issues that request.”
“As a society, we are finding balance in how we manage the ongoing COVID challenge. We have learned to be flexible and to adapt to changing times. We know now more than ever the importance of being respectful of each other and that it is up to all of us to help keep our community safe.” – David Farrar, president, and Susan Tighe, provost, McMaster U
I’ve reported before that vaccine boosters peak in their protection against infection by the Omicron variants within about 12 weeks, so they only block contagion for about 3 months. In effect, vaccines protect individuals from severe COVID19 consequences, but may now do little to protect others. Even hospitals aren’t stipulating booster shot requirements – the government definition of “fully vaxxed” remains just 2 doses of most vaccines. Older staff and faculty may have had their boosters so long ago that they should consider a 4th dose by now, while most PSE students only became eligible for a 4th dose in recent weeks. The handful of CdnPSEs maintaining their vax mandates this Fall are rightly trying to do everything possible – but vaccine histories are far more complex now, and more is required. Many public health and immunology profs have been advising the media that a vaccine mandate no longer serves a useful purpose. Dalhousie infectious disease researcher Lisa Barrett argues that universities should instead prioritize access to masks, vaccine clinics, and COVID19 tests, and ensure they have “great sick day and hybrid learning opportunities.”
Despite much debate in medical and public health circles, four Ontario institutions have reinstated vaccine mandates, to some degree…
uToronto announced in late July that it would be requiring all students and employees living in campus residences this Fall to have at least 3 doses of COVID19 vaccine. “Living in residence creates a unique set of conditions that require special precautions.” As for classrooms and other spaces on campus, The Varsityreports that uToronto warns it “may reestablish vaccination requirements at any time,” in which case “unvaccinated students would be disenrolled from their in-person classes.”
Trent U Residences
Trent U confirmed Aug 24 that all students living in campus residences are required to have 2 doses of COVID19 vaccine, “with some exceptions,” and that COVID19 testing would be required upon arrival.
2 Doses for Seneca
Uniquely among Canadian colleges and polytechnics, Seneca College is maintaining its vaccine mandate this Fall, requiring all students, staff, and visitors to be fully vaxxed (ie 2 doses). Clearly, president David Agnewhas strong opinions about vaccinations. He explains: “I was the head of UNICEF Canada in a previous career and I have seen first-hand the life-changing impacts of vaccinations. I have seen the other side: What happens when a virus or disease rages out of control.” With the vax requirement in place, Seneca has relaxed masking requirements in many campus spaces – but not in classrooms or instruction spaces.
“I was the head of UNICEF Canada in a previous career and I have seen first-hand the life-changing impacts of vaccinations. I have seen the other side: What happens when a virus or disease rages out of control.” – David Agnew, president, Seneca College
3 Doses for Western
Just 2 weeks ago, on Aug 22, Western U announced that it was reimposing a classroom mask mandate until at least Thanksgiving, and would be requiring all students, faculty and staff on campus to provide proof of at least 3 doses of COVID19 vaccine by Oct 1. (The vax mandate will stay in place until August 2023.) As provost Florentine Strzelczyk put it, “While we can’t predict when the next wave of COVID-19 might come, we believe these measures will help us protect the in-person experience that Western is known for.” Western notes that Brown, Columbia, Harvard, and Yale have likewise imposed vaccine and mask mandates for the Fall term. UWO affiliates Huron UC and King’s UC mirrored the main campus policies, but notably Brescia UC did not, explaining it “is choosing to emphasize recommendations that align with each individual’s needs rather than dedicating important resources towards enforcing mandates.”
“You have hundreds and hundreds of students in a single lecture hall, right? We need to be cognizant of the risks associated with that. We don’t want an outbreak to occur late in the fall and we would have to revert, dare I say, to online instruction and exams again.” – Hiram Perrinpanayagam, president, UWO Faculty Association
Enough is Enough?
Within days, national media reported campus protests by “hundreds” of Western students – and an indeterminate number of outsiders. (Of course, bear in mind that Western has 32,000 students, so even 1,000 protesters represent only ~3%.) “Students4Agency” established an Instagram page. Protesters carried picket signs reading “enough is enough” and “I call my own shots.” Global News claims that Western’s policies even “drew the ire of several federal Conservative leadership candidates, including Pierre Poilievre, Roman Baber and Leslyn Lewis.”
Considering that Western was the first institution in Canada to announce a vax mandate in 2021 (on May 27, 3 months earlier than this year) I’m not surprised they did so – but I’m surprised about the timing. Arguably, it might have been better had Western made the announcement earlier in the year, before students confirmed their admission or paid tuition deposits. (Full refunds were available if students withdrew by Aug 31, just 9 days after the announcement.) While the University Students’ Council acknowledges student concerns about the timing, it narrowly rejected (really narrowly, by 53%) a call to officially oppose the mandates.
So what might have been the main driver of the announcement?
Throughout the pandemic, faculty associations have been lobbying for stricter precautions and freedom to avoid physical classrooms. This summer has been no exception, as CdnPSE prepared for a full return to campus…
Western Faculty Applaud
The UWOFA said it expected an announcement about mask mandates the week of Aug 8, two full weeks before the actual announcement was made. The cynics at the Toronto Sun suggest that Western’s policies were “the result of demands by the faculty association currently negotiating a new contract with the school.” True or not, certainly UWOFA “applauds” the mandates (although it would like to see even stricter mask mandates outside the classroom).
Other Faculty Push in Vain
Across the country, media reports have highlighted faculty concerns about returns to class without a mask mandate. Most have lobbied and signed petitions in vain.
Cape Breton U faculty have been pressuring the administration to impose a mask mandate, without success.
Carleton U Staff Association has called on the institution to join “the growing list” of CdnPSEs to reinstate mask mandates, and CUPE Local 4600 (representing TAs, RAs and contract instructors) has filed a grievance against Carleton for failing to consult the union. (Carleton’s Academic Staff Association is disappointed the administration will not allow individual profs to impose their own mask policies in class.)
uGuelph biology profs have been speaking out in the media against the lack of mandates there.
The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations has been calling on all MB universities to reinstate mask mandates.
The uToronto Faculty Association and CUPE Local 3902 have been advocating for stricter health measures, and particularly for the reinstatement of a mask mandate.
The uVic Faculty Association wants a mask mandate at minimum.
uWinnipeg Faculty Association was just completing a survey of its members when the administration announced an end to mask mandates.
Although a vocal minority of students seem to oppose mask and vax mandates where they have been reimposed this Fall, the only student government positions I have seen seem to support the more cautious approach, or are lobbying for even more…
uOttawa Students’ Union is “calling for a better return to campus policy,” including mandatory mask policies and online course options.
Nationally, CdnPSE campuses have some differences in masking or vaccine requirements – but there are a few places where the contrasts are particularly striking. At Western U, Huron UC and King’s UC, masks are required in classrooms and 3 doses are required on campus – but across the road at Brescia UC, neitherrequirement is in place. At Ontario Tech, masks are required – but not at Durham College (which shares its campus and some facilities), nor at Trent U Durham. Wilfrid Laurier U requires masks in classrooms, but across the street at uWaterloo masks are entirely optional. Confusion and frustration will likely continue to simmer through September. Many institutions that have promised to re-evaluate their policies after Thanksgiving may well take the opportunity to fall in line with neighbouring campuses.
“Wearing a mask in congregate settings to keep people safer should not be controversial.” – Steven Murphy, president, Ontario Tech
We’ve been wondering what the post-pandemic “new normal” might be, and it looks like it’s already here: vaccines a personal choice, masks encouraged but not mandated, and far more people choosing to wear them than ever before. Politicians and CdnPSE leaders are emphasizing freedom of personal choice balanced with duty to the community, and particularly to the most at-risk members of that community.
Of course, just where that “balance” sits seems to vary significantly by level of education, income, and political persuasion… so from here on out, campus Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives may just need to expandto include anti-maskers and the immunocompromised alike!
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