Edmonton

Alberta post-secondary schools rush to choose between mandatory vaccines and restrictions

Many post-secondary classes were cancelled Thursday as Alberta's 26 universities, colleges and polytechnics scrambled to figure out how to operate under new COVID-19 public health rules.

Institutions choosing different paths based on students' needs

The University of Alberta and at least seven other post-secondary schools in the province are temporarily suspending in-person classes. (University of Alberta)

Many post-secondary classes were cancelled Thursday as Alberta's 26 universities, colleges and polytechnics scrambled to figure out how to operate under new COVID-19 public health rules.

Nine of the biggest institutions had already decided that everyone on campus must be fully vaccinated, with implementation dates set to provide adequate time for the shots and the two-week period for the vaccine to become fully effective.

Alberta's new restriction exemption program — which allows institutions to forego physical distancing rules by requiring people to be vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test — takes effect on Monday.

Businesses that don't require proof of vaccination will also be subject to capacity limits. Those limits won't apply to schools.

Meanwhile, the new distancing requirements that took effect Thursday prompted the universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge, polytechnics NAIT and SAIT, MacEwan and Mount Royal universities and many colleges to cancel classes. 

Some have closed their campuses until Sunday.

"I'm not going to suggest this is going to be without challenges," Bill Werry, executive director of the Council of Post-secondary Presidents of Alberta, said on Thursday. "It's going to be challenging."

Werry said institution leaders are hastily trying to sort out the logistics. Who will ask students and staff for proof of vaccination, and where on campuses? Who pays for the tests?

Schools that hadn't already committed to requiring vaccinations or negative tests have even more decisions to make. 

Laurie Chandler, press secretary to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, said until they adopt the exemption program, schools will have to keep everyone on campus at least two metres apart.

Regardless of whether they mandate proof of vaccination, masks are mandatory inside all institutions for now.

Another blow to post-secondary students

The Thursday closures were a huge frustration to students, said Rowan Ley, president of the University of Alberta Students' Association. Some students had bused to campus before realizing classes were cancelled, he said.

"Clearly a last-minute decision was made, and there was a shambolic process to try to implement it," he said.

Jorgia Moore, vice-president, internal, of the NAIT Students' Association, said a shuttered campus was another pandemic setback students didn't need.

"I think everyone's hope was that it was just kind of back to normal and we were allowed to have those in-person connections," she said. "It was evident in the past couple weeks that that was not the case that was going to be."

By late Thursday, some schools had announced their plans.

The University of Alberta intends to resume in-person classes Monday, and will require proof of a first dose of vaccine after Oct. 4, and a second dose by Nov. 1. Staff, students and others whose inoculations haven't taken effect by those dates will not be allowed on campus.

Concordia University of Edmonton has opted to move classes online until Oct. 3. Classes on campus will resume the next day when staff, students, contractors and volunteers need to prove they've had at least one shot. Double vaccination proof is required by Oct. 25.

Nancy Broadbent is president and CEO of Portage College. (Submitted by Portage College)

Lac La Biche-based Portage College has decided not to adopt the exemption program on its seven campuses, president and CEO Nancy Broadbent said. 

Vaccination rates are low in northern Alberta, she said, and the college wants to keep students in school.

"Mandatory vaccines would mean that we're sending people home," she said. "So instead we're going back to social distancing."

Although the shots will be required in student residences, Portage is now moving some classes to larger spaces so people can spread out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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