3 Alberta universities announce mandatory masking, rapid testing for back to school

At the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge, anyone not fully vaccinated will have to undergo regular rapid testing as of September 1, the schools announced in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

New measures apply at the U of A, U of C and the University of Lethbridge 

See U of A crest on a building exterior. Stocks.
The University of Alberta is one of three Alberta universities adding mandatory masking and rapid testing to back-to-school plans. (David Bajer/CBC)

Three Alberta universities have announced major changes to their back-to-school plans. 

At the University of Alberta (U of A), the University of Calgary (U of C) and the University of Lethbridge (U of L), anyone not fully vaccinated will have to undergo regular rapid testing as of Sept. 1, the schools announced in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

The three schools are also requiring mask-wearing in public indoor areas where physical distancing is not possible.

Those who cannot be tested or vaccinated for medical reasons or on protected grounds recognized by the Alberta Human Rights Act can request an accommodation, the statement said.

"A safe return to campus in the fall remains our top priority, and in a rapidly changing situation, we recognize the urgent need for additional measures within our campus communities," U of A President and Vice-Chancellor Bill Flanagan said in the statement.

The new changes come after hundreds of members of the U of C and U of A university communities signed letters calling for stricter pandemic measures.

None of the three schools provided spokespeople who could answer questions about the new measures. The schools referred CBC journalists to the joint statement, which said the individual schools will release more details.

U of C and U of L have posted answers to frequently asked questions on their websites and the U of A has posted some additional details as well.

Masks not mandatory everywhere

Though non-medical face masks will be mandatory in public indoor areas, they will not be required in the following contexts:

  • Working alone in a private office
  • Working outside with at least two metres of distance between people
  • Meeting inside with at least two metres of distance between people
  • Working alone in a shared space
  • Working in a cubicle with an approved barrier between people and when not providing services to anyone
  • Working in a classroom with at least two metres of distance between people

How students and staff are reacting

Student leaders told CBC News on Thursday morning that they support the changes.

"Overall, most students are very happy with today's announcement and they're relieved," said Rowan Ley, president of the U of A students' union.

Rowan Ley is the president of the University of Alberta Students' Union. (Submitted by Rowan Ley)

Nicole Schmidt, president of the students' union at the U of C, said she hopes the rapid-testing mandate will encourage more students to get vaccinated.

"That's the best way to prevent the spread of COVID," she said.

Kevin Kane, a professor and president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, called the new measures "very positive developments." 

"We've had significant concern up to this point, because people weren't going to be necessarily protected in indoor spaces, because there wasn't a masking requirement," he said.

Kane said other universities and colleges should adopt more measures as well.

Kane said he still has concerns about potential outbreaks of the Delta variant on campuses.

In a letter sent to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and the presidents of the U of L, U of A, Athabasca University, Mount Royal University and MacEwan University, Kane asked for data on campus outbreaks and vaccination rates. 

John Church, a health policy expert and professor in the department of political science at the U of A, said he would like to see more physical distancing requirements.

Like Kane, he is also concerned about students at other post-secondary schools.

"I think that the measures should be province-wide and that every student should be given the opportunity to have maximum safety when returning to the classroom," he said.

In an emailed statement, the advanced education minister said the provincial government does not dictate what measures individual institutions put in place. 

"I believe it is critical to ensure that personal health information is kept private and that no one is required to take a vaccine to continue their learning and I feel that the institutions in question have struck a sensible balance that will protect faculty, staff and students as they return to in-person learning," Nicolaides said.

With files from Bryan Labby and Travis McEwan