Mandatory vaccines unlikely, but not off the table at northeastern Ontario universities, colleges
Most colleges and universities in the region told CBC they don't currently plan to require COVID-19 vaccines
When students return to campus at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie in September, Brianne Pringle hopes there will be much more "normalcy" for students. But with planning for the next academic year underway, the university's acting HR director said details around what campus life will look like are still in flux — including whether there will be any requirements around COVID-19 vaccinations.
Last week, Western University in London, Ont. announced that students living in residence this fall will be required to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. No such plans have been announced at colleges or universities in northern Ontario, but discussions are ongoing.
"There's a lot of factors that come into this. And I think at top of mind is safety for our community, and then really tied with it is people have their own rights on whether they get vaccinated or not," Pringle said. "So you know we have to weigh those rights against keeping our community safe."
At Collège Boréal in Sudbury, Michel Doucet said it's very unlikely the college will make vaccines mandatory for students or staff. The college's vice president of corporate services said the province's 24 colleges are working on a coordinated approach to COVID-19 policy.
"It's not a question that we can take without having the proper considerations and proper legal advice around whether we can or cannot ask for mandatory vaccination. We hope and encourage everyone to be vaccinated of course, but we want to make sure that whatever decision we do make falls within the rules and regulations and laws that are, that guide us as an institution," Doucet said.
According to employment layer Ryan Watkins, the law likely does allow for mandatory vaccine policies on college and university campuses.
Watkins said mandatory vaccination is the "hottest topic" he's been hearing about from clients. He's been telling his clients that employers can require that their employees be vaccinated — as long as there are exemptions for health or religious reasons — since employers are obligated to ensure a safe work environment.
While students are not employees, Watkins said colleges and universities have a similar requirement to ensure safety, and he believes mandatory vaccine policies would hold up legally.
"We've already seen policies with you know school aged children about mandatory vaccination. So you know it's been done in other settings. The main criteria when we're looking at an employer, or at this case if we're talking about schools, is ensuring to keep students safe. And how do we go about doing that in a global pandemic with a contagious virus, that's ensuring that everybody gets vaccinated," Watkins said."
No firm decisions
At Algoma University, Pringle said a vaccine requirement specifically for residence students, similar to what has been announced at Western, is not off the table.
"We will be looking into what that could look like for us, and working very closely with Algoma Public Health around our residence students. Which is what we've been doing from the beginning, on how we've, you know set up their living spaces and kept them safe," Pringle said.
Whether or not the university implements any kind of vaccine requirements, Pringle said she is hopeful that residence students will have a much more typical campus life experience this year.
"Residence students definitely were impacted over the last year," Pringle said.
"There was no activities on campus for them, so it really took away that experience. So really hoping that come September we're able to bring some normalcy back to them and get back to that, whatever that new normal looks like from a residence lens, with COVID-19 still being a bit of a factor for them."
Meanwhile Laurentian University and Cambrian College both said in statements to CBC that they do not currently plan to require vaccinations, but will follow local public health recommendations. Sault College said it is still considering its options, and Northern College said it wasn't ready to comment.
Canadore College and Nipissing University did not respond to requests from CBC.