Some Western students confused why university mandated a 3rd COVID-19 shot after they'd paid tuition
Other students, faculty say new masking and vaccination requirements make them feel protected
Some Western students say they're disappointed with the London, Ont., university's decision to mandate masking and vaccine booster doses for the fall semester, especially given they'd already paid tuition before the new measures were announced.
"I just want to know the why [were the requirements changed], with statistics and a more in-depth reason, instead of it being a, 'Too bad so sad, you need to put your mask on and get your booster,'" said Nathalia Aranda, a second-year student who feels the school hasn't given students a solid answer.
According to Western's website, the due date for first-year students' tuition fees was Aug. 2; for upper-year students, it was Aug. 15.
Western announced the new COVID-19 mandates on Monday. They apply to students, and faculty and staff for fall. They must have been vaccinated three times (the two initial shots as well as at least one booster of any combination of COVID-19 vaccines recognized by Health Canada) and wear masks in classrooms and seminar rooms.
"While we all hope the pandemic will be behind us soon, we're not there yet," Florentine Strzelczyk, Western's provost and vice-president academic, told CBC News. "Knowing that the pandemic is dynamic and we can't predict what will happen in the fall, we believe these measures are part of a multi-layered approach that will help us protect the in-person experience that Western is known for."
Despite opposition by some students, others, including some faculty members, are applauding the new measures, saying the university is being a public-health leader and trying to avoid a return to remote learning in the event of a COVID-19 case-numbers spike this fall.
The university said the mask-wearing and booster-shot decision were based on extensive consultation with its science experts and the Western community.
"This decision supports the safety of our students, employees and our community with the goal of preserving our in-person experience," said Dr. Sonya Malone, Western's occupational health physician.
Vaccinations are available at an on-campus clinic, Strzelczyk said. "We know that these policies can cause some divisiveness, but we are also hearing from many of our campus community who are grateful that we have chosen to take this approach."
Aranda, who has a booster shot, said she understands the importance of masking and vaccines. She and other students CBC interviewed said they would have still paid their tuition to continue their education, but would have preferred to have been able to consider other options.
"I chose to receive my booster. However, I don't see why we need it to get an education," Aranda said. "Why is it harder to get an education at Western than it is to go travel to another country? Because you don't need that booster to travel."
Full-time undergraduate students who want to withdraw on or before Aug. 31 will be eligible for a full refund of tuition and other fees, Strzelczyk said, and those living in residence can get a full refund before Sept. 2 by emailing the housing office.
In June, the Ontario government dropped its mask mandates in most settings. And although the province highly recommends getting a booster, it's not mandatory.
"I was really happy and very relieved when I heard what the university was mandating. They acted with integrity and did the right thing," said Beth MacDougall-Shackleton, a professor in the biology department.
"People had been on edge. We'd been waiting to see what will be required for the start of school. The mandate protects public health. It protects us."
Moving online is a strain on instructors and students, and anything to prevent that is a good thing, she added.
Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist at Western, calls the university's move "reasonable."
"I think it's pretty reasonable, given the objectives the university is trying to achieve," Smith said. "Most Ivy League schools in the states have mandated booster shots. Western has a choice and it is choosing to add protections versus removing them."
Justin Alla, who's in the health sciences program, was looking forward to enjoying his fourth and final year starting in September.
"I was very excited to return to Western. My friends and I saw the restrictions lifted this summer and thought we can have somewhat normalcy for our last year. University is an experience and we want to have at least a little bit of that."
Alla, who was at the end of his first year when the pandemic hit in March 2020, said COVID-19 restrictions have existed for the bulk of his university experience. He believes the new COVID-19 measures are unwarranted, and wonders why Western dropped its mask mandate in June, only to reverse it two months later.
"It just came out of left field" he said. "They did a 180. They should've talked to their students and staff to see where we're at and how we're feeling in terms of the situation."
Mya Kestle, a third-year student in the food and nutrition program, feels duped. She believes the university could've communicated this sooner because right now, students feel very unheard.
"They could've said it at the beginning of the summer, so that we had the summer before we paid tuition to decide if we wanted to go to a school that's requiring this mandate," she said.
For Kestle, if a third dose is required by the government, it would be easier to adapt to or make alternative choices like online classes, but right now, the only place she needs a booster is the university she's paying to attend, she said.
Western will require students living in residence to get their booster dose before moving in, but will offer a two-week grace period — and easy access to the campus vaccination clinic — for students unable to get a booster before they arrive.
"Mitigating the risk of transmission of COVID-19, as well as of severe outcomes from the infection, can be effectively achieved with a combination of masking and vaccination," said public health physician Dr. Saverio Stranges.
The updated policy requires all students, faculty, and staff to submit current proof of vaccination to the university by Oct. 1.