Some students and faculty members at the University of Victoria are calling for COVID‑19 vaccines to be mandatory on campus as the fall term nears and case counts rise.
Fourth-year student Emily Lowan said there is a lot of apprehension among students about the fall restart.
“A lot of my friends and people that I’ve been talking to definitely would feel more comfortable if everyone was vaccinated, and that we did have that mandatory vaccine,” she said.
Currently, 68 per cent of people age 12 and over in the Island Health region have had two vaccine doses, rising to 70 per cent for those age 18 and over. Eighty per cent of those age 12 and over have had a single dose.
UVic Faculty Association president Lynne Marks, who represents a membership of 860, said a survey this month showed 85 per cent of the 480 members who responded favoured vaccines being mandatory.
The survey asked if UVic should lobby the provincial government to allow vaccines to be mandated for students, faculty and staff, she said.
Three quarters of faculty members who responded want UVic to lobby for mandatory masks, Marks said. “Some people are less keen on that because they don’t want to have to police it in their classroom.”
Marks said vaccine requirements for students in residence are already in effect in many universities in Ontario and more than 400 major American universities have vaccine mandates.
Also in Ontario, some universities will operate fully online in September, while others will be about 50 per cent online, Marks said.
Most UVic classes won’t have physical distancing in September, Marks said, and some can include as many as 300 students. She said she doesn’t see how physical distancing in large classes can be possible.
“I think they’re aware they might have to pivot to online, but our point is that if vaccines were required for being on campus now then you would dramatically reduce the risk,” she said. “I support the importance of privacy and obviously the importance of human rights, but the greater concern is maintaining the health of the university community, avoiding disability, avoiding major illness.”
UVic spokeswoman Karen Johnston said the university — which typically has about 20,000 students attending — has been planning for a safe return to campus for months. In September, masks will be optional on campus and vaccination won’t be mandatory, she said. “It’s important to remember that vaccination records are personal health information and vaccines are not mandatory in B.C.”
As for ventilation on campus, Johnston said it meets or exceeds standards, adding WorkSafeBC advises that building ventilation systems in good operating condition do not contribute to the spread of COVID-19. HVAC filters have been upgraded and their frequency of replacement has been increased, Johnston said.
At Camosun College, plans — based on direction from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry — include maintaining directional signage to reduce points of congestion and continuing to use COVID-19 protocols “that do not negatively impact operations, such as barriers and partitions,” said Deborah Huelscher, vice-president administration and chief financial officer.
Camosun Student Society executive director Michel Turcotte said his group hasn’t discussed a vaccine mandate but there is support for wearing masks. “We’re certainly in favour of getting students back in the classroom,” he said. “Right now, we’re encouraging students to get vaccinated.”
Incentives include a contest that students who get vaccinated can enter to win their fall tuition, which could be worth up to $10,000, Turcotte said.
Marks said the faculty association has asked UVic’s administration about returning to online learning if the COVID-19 situation worsens. Most courses were online through July, with any in-person classes requiring physical distancing.
She said the association has been told by the administration that a return to online classes could happen.
“They said that’s a possibility but they’re really clear that they’re following the public-health office,” Marks said. “The public-health office wanted us as much as possible in person, so we are almost entirely in person in the fall.”
The Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C., which represents 5,500 faculty members at UVic, Royal Roads University, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Northern British Columbia, sent a letter asking Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang to allow B.C. universities to introduce vaccine and mask mandates, and determine their own modes of course delivery and class sizes.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry did not directly answer when asked whether she would support individual universities if they decided to impose their own vaccination and mask rules. “What is critical is we’re not denying people an education because of their immunization status,” she said.
Henry said her office intends to make sure universities have easy access to vaccines and can meet the needs of the small percentage of the population that cannot get the vaccine.
There also has to be planning for what happens on campuses when there is increased community transmission, which she noted is going to happen in some areas this fall.
“We have the basics in place to make sure we have in-class learning across post-secondary institutions in B.C. and we will continue to work with them into the fall,” Henry said.
— With files from Andrew Duffy
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