McGill professors, students protest for stricter COVID-19 measures on first day of class

Students and staff at McGill University staged a protest Wednesday, saying they're worried about their safety and frustrated by a lack of options as the university returns to in-person learning.

Some want remote learning options and mandatory vaccination for students

Claire Downie, a vice president at the Students' Society of McGill University, says she wants the school to put in place a vaccine mandate and offer more flexibility and remote learning options for immunocompromised students. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

McGill University's fall semester kicked off with a protest this morning, with several students and staff gathering on campus to demand stronger health measures and more options for remote learning.

The university's general health guidelines for the school year say distancing is no longer required in classrooms and labs, though students in those spaces have to wear procedural masks at all times.

In other indoor spaces, masks and one-metre distancing are both mandatory. When students take their masks off to eat, drink, work out or sing, two metres' distance is required.

Most of McGill is back to in-person learning, with a few exceptions for large classes. Proof of vaccination is required to access certain activities and parts of campus, but is not required to attend classes.

Students feel 'let down'

Claire Downie, vice-president of university affairs at the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU), says she feels the school is neglecting its most vulnerable students.

"I feel very let down by my university," she said. "Because there's people in my life who I love who are immunocompromised and disabled and they deserve to have a university that values their life."

"The McGill administration has failed to implement common sense COVID safety policies and accommodations for those who need them," she said.

Student associations, students and professors gathered at McGill University today to protest the administration's back to school plan and call for stronger health measures in classrooms and on campus. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

SSMU set up a tent outside McGill's admin building this morning and planned to be there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., handing out t-shirts with the slogan, "Protest for a safe and accessible McGill campus." 

The group was also giving out postcards that people could fill out and return to SSMU, who will forward their demands for a safer return to school to the administration.

Not listening to their own experts

Michael Hendricks donned a t-shirt and joined this morning's protest. The associate professor of biology says he missed teaching on campus last year but has some concerns about the way the return is being handled.

"I'm pretty angry about the lack of preparedness and precautions we're taking," he said.

Both Downie and Hendricks say they'd like to see McGill make vaccines mandatory across campus.

"McGill has internationally renowned experts in public health and epidemiology and law," said Hendricks, "and all of these experts are saying that we're not doing enough."

Michael Hendricks is an associate professor of biology at McGill University. He says he's happy to be back in the classroom but frustrated that the university didn't consult its own experts in epidemiology and public health when deciding what safety measures would be put in place this school year. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

With about 100 students enrolled in his largest class, he wants a vaccine mandate and regular testing on campus.

In an internal memo obtained by CBC News and addressed to all faculty deans from McGill's Office of the Provost, the school said it's "returning to in-person teaching to the fullest extent possible".

The memo states staff members are required to be on campus to conduct their teaching and academic related activities and says fear about campus safety or concern about relatives who might be at greater risk or exposure to COVID-19 are not valid reasons to teach remotely.

The note also warns that staff who try to "game" the system by giving "false yes" responses on the daily COVID health check could face disciplinary measures.

In a statement to CBC News, McGill University said the latest numbers from health authorities show 85 per cent of their students are vaccinated and said there's "a high degree of certainty" that those who are most at-risk have got their shots.

The school says the decision to require vaccination across campus and in classrooms would have to be made by the Quebec government.

Those on campus for the first time, like second year student Madison Edward-Wright, say they're feeling a bit nervous and uncertain at the start of the school year.

"I feel safe because we're wearing masks but because there's absolutely no distancing it does feel quite weird," she said.

 "I don't know if I'm quite ready for that."

With files from Kwabena Oduro