Nova Scotia

Professors call on universities to introduce or strengthen vaccine mandates

University communities in Nova Scotia are about to come back together in person and some faculty members are concerned by the absence of vaccine mandates at certain institutions. 

Some N.S. universities have announced sweeping vaccine mandates, others are taking a different approach

Acadia University is not requiring proof of vaccination on campus, but is asking staff, students and faculty to wear masks and practise social distancing. (Robert Short/CBC)

University communities in Nova Scotia are about to come back together in person and some faculty members are concerned by the absence of vaccine mandates at certain institutions. 

Schools such as Dalhousie University, Mount Saint Vincent University and the Nova Scotia Community College have announced vaccine mandates in recent days that include restrictions for those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

The policies have largely been met with support from students and staff, but some schools are trying a different approach. 

Acadia University in Wolfville does not have a vaccine mandate. Instead, it will require students to be masked in all public areas, practise social distancing and get tested regularly. 

The university's faculty association is speaking out against the school's fall plan, saying it is not comprehensive or flexible enough to address fears about what's to come. 

"The problem is … it seems to be kind of a one-size-fits-all policy to return to in-person teaching," said Jon Saklofske, a spokesperson for the association.

Jon Saklofske is an English professor at Acadia University and the spokesperson for the faculty association. (Acadia University)

In a statement on its website, Acadia said it "strongly encourages all members of the campus community (including members of the general public who access the campus and its facilities) to be fully vaccinated."

Professors at Acadia will be required to teach classes in person unless they have a medical exemption. They will also not be able to create their own COVID-19 rules within their classrooms. 

Saklofske said many professors with immunocompromised or young children are nervous about in-person teaching, but they would not be eligible for an exemption. The association said there should be flexibility for professors in terms of virtual course delivery.

The association has also called on the school to introduce a vaccine mandate for everyone on campus, but it said the university has not responded.

It has been trying to set up a meeting with administrators, but with less than two weeks until classes begin, the association feels time is running out.

"Our representatives are going to make themselves available evenings, weekends — whatever it takes — because we do think this is an important issue," Saklofske said. 

In Antigonish, the faculty association at St. Francis Xavier University has asked the school to introduce a vaccine mandate due to concerns over a fourth wave of COVID-19 and the highly contagious delta variant.

In a letter sent Thursday to students, faculty and staff, the university said a campus-wide survey will be conducted by a third party to help "quantify and understand the vaccination status of all staff, faculty and students to support planning purposes."

St. FX also said it is consulting with union leadership and the students' union on a mandatory testing policy. Those who are fully vaccinated would be exempt with proof of vaccination. 

It said details would be shared in the coming days.

High-risk settings

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents more than 70,000 academic and general staff at universities and colleges across the country, said vaccine requirements should be part of any safe back-to-school plan. 

"There's large numbers of people who gather to teach and to learn and to socialize," said David Robinson, director of the national association.

"We also know that there's a large proportion of the 18- to 29-year-old population that is not vaccinated."

Robinson noted there are some legal issues with mandating vaccinations, but the issues can be easily mitigated by making policies fair, reasonable, and respectful of human rights and privacy laws. 

Some schools are trying a blended approach. Saint Mary's University in Halifax is requiring certain groups to be vaccinated, including athletes and students living in residence, but not making a rule for the entire campus community. 

Jamie Livingston, an associate professor at Saint Mary's, believes a full vaccine requirement is necessary to protect students and staff, as well as the city as a whole.

"We have students coming from across the province into Halifax, across the country. Thirty per cent of students at Saint Mary's are coming internationally," Livingston said. 

"So I think there's a responsibility for universities to ensure that we're keeping our community safe as well."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin is a multi-platform reporter with CBC Nova Scotia, based in K'jipuktuk (Halifax). If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca.

with files from CBC Radio's Information Morning

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