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'We've gone as far as we can go, legally': Western University president says on campus vaccinations

Vaccinations will not be made mandatory at post-secondary institutions for a return to campus this fall, but some students and faculty at Western University are pushing for just that. 

No capacity limits, physical distancing rules on campus: memo to colleges, universities reveals

Western University president Alan Sheppard said the institution has "gone as far as it can go, legally," with vaccination policies, at a news conference on Monday. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Vaccinations will not be made mandatory at Western University or other post-secondary institutions in Ontario for a return to campus this fall, and some students and faculty in London say that is a mistake.  

Western University is requiring students staying in residence to have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine but that is as far as it will go to mandate vaccine policies on campus.

"Vaccines are not mandatory but we are ensuring that post-secondary institutions are working with their local public health units," said Jill Dunlop, Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Dunlop at a press conference at Western University Monday.

"I know that Western is planning a pop-up clinic shortly to ensure that we're getting as many young people vaccinated as possible.

The ministry told all Ontario colleges and universities to prepare for in-person learning in the fall, with no capacity limits or physical distancing rules on campus. Post-secondary institutions were also told to prepare a backup plan to keep classes running in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

While vaccines will not be mandated, the ministry is encouraging on-campus vaccination and rapid testing.

"Universities and colleges are legal entities of their own and we do not look at matters of academic and administration, so that would be up to each individual," she said.

"Vaccines are not mandatory but we are ensuring that post-secondary institutions are working with their local public health units," said Jill Dunlop, Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Western University President Alan Shepard, who joined the minister at the news conference, said Monday he is comfortable with Western's fall plan.

It includes the decision to mandate single-dose vaccinations to students living in residence. The university's housing guide says unvaccinated students will be allowed to move in, so long as they receive their first dose within 14 days of arrival. 

It also says students are required to receive a second dose but no timeline is given. A vaccination clinic will be setup on campus. 

"We're obviously encouraging everyone to get vaccinated and we feel that we've gone as far as we can go legally, and we're very comfortable with our decision," Shepard said.

"The future is never as clear as the past is. We do have a plan in place and we were one of the first Canadian universities to convert to all-online should we need to do that."

Sheppard said Western is prepared to pivot to virtual learning on short notice if necessary but he does not anticipate needing to do so.

Students, profs feel unsafe

Earlier this month, Seneca College announced it will be requiring all students and staff attending campus in-person to be vaccinated. A professor at Western also called on the university to implement the same policy saying it has a responsibility to "keep everyone safe."

Some Western students like Cameron Hick, a Master of Science student, would like to see mandatory vaccine policies in place on campus, to feel safe.

"To ensure the safety of our campus, the only way to do that is by requiring vaccinations for those who are able," Hick said.

"I've been seeing a ton of support from different professors that want these vaccinations for students so that they can feel safe returning to in-person learning," she said.

Hick earned her undergraduate degree in medical science in April and said she has been reaching out to friends and family to encourage them to get vaccinated.

"There are professors who have kids at home under 12 who can't be vaccinated right now, there are people who are immunocompromised who can't get vaccinated and in order to keep those people safe, my age group especially 18-29 needs to get vaccinated," Hick said. 

A memo from the province tells Ontario colleges and universities to prepare for in-person learning in the fall, with no capacity limits or physical distancing rules on campus. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

In a news briefing Monday, Dr. Alex Summers, Associate Medical Officer of Health with the Middlesex London Health Unit (MLHU), said they will continue working with post-secondary institutions on a safe return to in-person classes.

"We will continue to have conversations with Western and Fanshawe, as we further understand how high the vaccination coverage rate will rise on its own and what the impact of the Delta strain will be," Summers said.

Summers said the MLHU will continue to explore other tools to ensure that vaccine coverage is as high as can be to ensure a return to campus in the fall will be "safe and productive."

A full framework with recommended COVID-19 safety measures will be provided by early next month, Dunlop said.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said Alan Shepard was comfortable with the decision to mandate single doses of vaccines to students living in residence. Western's Media Relations Executive Director of Editorial Strategy & Media Relations, Marcia Steyaert says the president meant he is comfortable with the overall plan for the fall, which also includes vaccination clinics on campus.
    Jul 20, 2021 4:24 PM ET

With files from Colin Butler and Isha Bhargava

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