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Some Western profs threaten to withdraw from the classroom if the university doesn't make vaccines mandatory

Some Western University professors say without a campus-wide vaccine mandate, they will not return to in-person teaching if community COVID cases begin to creep back up. 

The professors are uneasy with the university's failure to implement a mandatory vaccine policy

Western professors Adrian Owen, Paul Gribble and Macro Prado say without a campus-wide vaccine mandate, they are weighing their options. (Submitted)

Some Western University professors say without a campus-wide vaccine mandate, they will not return to in-person teaching if community COVID cases begin to creep back up. 

"I've made it very clear that I will not go to campus until there is a mandate to staff, students and faculty to be vaccinated," said world renowned neuroscientist Adrian Owen who teaches in the Schulich School of Medicine at Western.

"I'm taking that position for exactly the same reason that I got vaccinated," he said. "To protect our community and to do whatever small thing I can do to bring an end to this pandemic."

Adrian Owen says he will return to campus to run his lab, but only because the 12 students in the group have told him they are vaccinated. (Submitted by Adrian Owen)

Although Owen isn't actually teaching any courses in the fall semester, he is running a lab with 12 graduate students. He walked back his initial comments to CBC News saying he would return to campus to run the lab, but only because all of his students have told him they are vaccinated.

Last month Western University said it would not implement a campus-wide vaccine policy, though it has mandated at least one COVID vaccine dose for students living in residence.

"We've gone as far as we can go legally," said university president Alan Shepard at the time, although he didn't elaborate.

"It's absolutely clear that people are really anxious about this," said Owen. "They're just not satisfied with the almost complete lack of any communication from the university administration about why these decisions are being made and what is being done to protect us."

Owen said all the scientific research points to the vaccine as the answer to stamping out COVID, and says a mandatory vaccine mandate is the easiest solution. "Hundreds of post-secondary institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world have made the decision to follow the scientific advice."

Owen noted that Seneca College, with campuses in Toronto, York Region and Peterborough, has also made the vaccine a condition of attending classes in person.

Professor Dr. Marco Prado says if cases begin to surge, he will not return to campus this fall without a mandatory vaccine policy. (Submitted by Dr. Marco Prado)

Returning to campus on a full-time basis will be a game-time decision for professor Marco Prado with the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and Western's Robarts Research Institute.

This fall Prado is scheduled to teach a third year lecture-hall style course.

"I worry about COVID and I worry about being in a room with 450 students without knowing if they are vaccinated or not vaccinated," he said.

"I'll play it by ear. If I see risks for my health and my community, I will say no," he said about a full-return to return to campus. Prado is currently already leading small labs at Western. 

But 450 students in one room is different. "I will not be able to teach in class if I feel for my health or the health of my community," said Prado.

University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) president Nigmendra Narain said in an emailed statement that the university has a right to determine workplace conditions.

"UWOFA is using every tool at its disposal to put pressure on Western to do the right thing and require all students and staff be fully vaccinated against Covid-19," said Narain.

"Anything less than a vaccine mandate willfully ignores the advice of Western's own world-renowned faculty experts in public health law and infectious disease prevention."

Western professor Paul Gribble is teaching a 40-person class this fall and says he will pivot his course online if he isn't comfortable with the number of COVID cases in the community. (Submitted by Paul Gribble)

"I'm considering all my options," said Paul Gribble, a Western University psychology professor. "I think it depends if case levels are still very low in London and everyone wears masks, then perhaps I will come in."

Gribble is signed up to teach a 40-student graduate class in scientific computing this fall and worries that without knowing the vaccination status of his students, he won't be able to keep his daughter safe at home. She's under 12 and is unable to get the vaccine.

"I'm confused by why they're not introducing a mandate," Gribble said. "I see this as an opportunity for Western to step up and be a leader and to do what's right and defend that choice, rather than just doing what's easy and crossing their fingers that everything will be okay."

Gribble plans to pivot to online learning if he feels uneasy about going in, although he's unsure how the university would react to that.

CBC News has contacted Western University and is still waiting for a response.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna. Contact Rebecca at rebecca.zandbergen@cbc.ca or follow @rebeccazandberg on Twitter.

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