The Current

Students are preparing to go back to campus — but will it require a vaccine?

University students may be eagerly preparing their return to the classroom after a sometimes painful and frustrating year-and-a-half of online learning, but the transition may not be without its complications.

UBC professor Debra Parkes urges vaccine mandates and indoor masking for staff and students

Students attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver this fall won't be required to be fully vaccinated to attend classes. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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University students may be eagerly preparing their return to the classroom after a sometimes painful and frustrating year-and-a-half of online learning, but the transition may not be without its complications. 

As part of their return plans for the fall, post-secondary institutions have been announcing whether or not students will need to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus.

British Columbia doesn't currently have a vaccine mandate for schools and universities, though it did announce mandatory masks for indoor public places.

On Tuesday, B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the decision was made because they didn't feel classrooms were a risky setting. 

"The risk really is in communal living settings that we have seen transmission, particularly of COVID," said Henry. "That's why we're focusing on the increase and the importance of immunisation in those settings."

That has law professor Debra Parkes concerned, especially as the Delta variant has contributed to a rise in new cases around the world.

"It's necessary to have a combination of vaccination requirement and masking in university classrooms this year," Parkes told The Current's guest host Anthony Germain.

Henry also said mandatory vaccinations could be a barrier to education, but Parkes disagrees, and said there are other options. She suggested the University of British Columbia (UBC) and other schools in the province could include exceptions for those who can't get vaccinated, and regular testing for those who are refusing to get it.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the decision to not make vaccines mandatory was because they didn't feel classrooms were a risky setting.  (Mike McArthur/CBC)

That way, Parkes could teach in a classroom with a lower risk of transmission, she said.

"I have a 10-year-old daughter who can't be vaccinated," said Parkes. "I don't want to be exposing her indirectly to more potential transmission." 

Vaccine mandates at many universities

While UBC is following the province's current public health guidelines, some universities across the country have gone ahead and announced their own requirements.

In St. John's, N.L., Memorial University says staff and students will need to have their first shot of an approved vaccine by Sept. 7, and a second dose by Oct. 15. It says accommodations will be granted for some exemptions. 

At the University of Guelph in Ontario, faculty, staff and students who intend to access school buildings must register their proof of vaccination by Sept. 7.

And at the University of Prince Edward Island, all faculty, staff and students will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18. People who are granted exemptions will need to disclose their vaccination status, undergo weekly testing and wear a mask at all times.

At the University of Prince Edward Island, students will need a vaccine to attend classes, or will need to be tested regularly. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

McGill student union calls for mandate

Universities in Quebec, including McGill in Montreal, have said they won't require students to be fully vaccinated.

That's not sitting well with Darshan Daryanani, a student and the president of The Students' Society of McGill University.

"The university has an obligation to ensure that the community is safe and that the lack of planning is, quite frankly, very disappointing for us as a student union," said Daryanani. 

In a letter to the university staff, faculty, and students obtained by CBC News, McGill said Thursday that because Quebec considers higher education an essential service, a "vaccine passport will not impact your ability to engage in teaching and research activities at McGill."

Daryanani would like to see a vaccine mandate, but says it would need to be inclusive. He says international students, who may have received different vaccines than the ones used in Canada need to be able to attend classes as well. 

With fall quickly approaching, Daryanani is excited to get back to the classroom, but he also wants to make sure that he and his fellow students are safe when they do so. 

"I have a certain amount of trust in the community to do the right thing for everyone to trust the science that we have in vaccines and to ensure that we keep one another safe," he said.

"I think it's incumbent and a responsibility on the university to provide that physical, mental and emotional care for students to ensure that our learning will be safe."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Ashley Fraser, Ryan Chatterjee, and Idella Sturino.

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