With vaccination rate lagging among young adults, Quebec colleges take matters into their own hands
Post-secondary institutions eye crucial 75% target as lag threatens to delay return to normal schooling
For Charlotte Lees, a normal return to school for her first semester of CEGEP is an exciting prospect, given what her senior peers experienced at the height of the pandemic.
"It's so much easier to make friends in person for me, so I want to go back in person," said the 17-year-old Vanier College newcomer.
Like many Quebec youths, Lees has received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and has recently moved up her second dose for the end of July.
But her hope for a normal semester lies in the hands of other Quebecers aged 18-29, whose age group needs to reach a 75 per cent vaccination rate — a target proving to be challenging to attain.
The age group is lagging behind all others in the province, with a rate of 67 per cent. Health Minister Christian Dubé says he is concerned, specifically with the 18-24 group who will make up the bulk of students come August.
But John McMahon, director general of Vanier College, says he is optimistic about sticking with Plan A of the CEGEP's return plan, which entails all students being back on campus in person.
"One hundred per cent, just as we were pre-COVID. That is still our intention, that is still our hope," he said.
If the vaccination target isn't reached, Plan B would see a return to a hybrid online/in-person model, with first-year students receiving priority for in-person learning.
In a bid to encourage students and staff to get vaccinated, McMahon created a promotional video as well as a plan to get vaccines on campus.
"We're currently in discussions with the Montreal health authorities and other CEGEPs to consider having vaccination clinics right on campus in August to encourage those students."
Low rates, high efforts
While 72.8 per cent of Montrealers aged 18-29 have received a first dose of vaccine, other higher education institutions are situated in regions where rates are much lower.
In Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, where the rate for that age group is just 65 per cent, several post-secondary institutions joined forces to encourage students to be vaccinated before the start of the school year.
Institutions in all corners of the region — Chicoutimi, Jonquière, Alma and Saint-Félicien CEGEPs, as well as the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi (UQAC) — launched a campaign to remind students and staff what's at stake.
"What we want to put forward are all the positive aspects that the students could not experience during the pandemic" — namely in-person classes, gatherings and parties, explains the director of communications at UQAC, Marie-Karlynn Laflamme
Until mid-August, the five institutions will disseminate pro-vaccination messages over social media, on their web platform, and over mainstream media print and radio.
'That last little bit of motivation'
While the province has among the highest vaccination rates in Canada, it has struggled to reach the young demographic in its vaccine rollout.
Attempts to drive up jabs in youths, such as the CIUSS de la Capitale-Nationale's "Vaccin-O-Bus" and Montreal's west-end parks initiative "Vaccivan," have so far fallen short of their desired effects.
"I think that it is a time where they feel somewhat invulnerable," said Dr. Stine Linden-Andersen, dean of student affairs at Bishop's University and associate professor of psychology, of the age group.
That's why, she says, the university has reframed getting vaccinated as a "care for our community" initiative, which includes removing barriers by providing students with free taxi vouchers to travel to get their vaccines and a social media campaign.
Once students start thinking about themselves as just one part of a whole community, "with that lens, we're going to reach the 75 [per cent]," said Linden-Andersen.
Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que., is located in the Estrie region, where the vaccination rate for those 18 to 29 is 62.6 per cent.
Two weeks ago, when the rate for Quebecers in that age group was only two per cent lower than it is today, Premier François Legault asked youths to get vaccinated "in solidarity for their parents and their grandparents, and to get collective immunity," adding the province is still considering setting up a lottery to encourage them to book an appointment.
But like Bishops, which is beginning to plan orientation events, some of which will only be safe for those that have been vaccinated, the province emphasized yesterday more stark realities.
If the situation were to worsen in the fall, with schools reopening "we'd have to make serious societal choices," the health minister said. That may mean deciding that certain non-essential services will be available only to those who are fully vaccinated.
For Linden-Andersen, these moves "will be the just that last little bit of motivation they may need."
With files from Rowan Kennedy, Radio-Canada