University of Alberta community calls for campus vaccine mandate

After more than a year of online remote learning, students and staff are slowly trickling back onto the University of Alberta campus.

Hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have signed an open letter requesting that the province’s largest university implement mandatory vaccinations and masking as the campus plans to return to mostly in-person learning this fall.

The letter, addressed to university administration, cites the need for these measures as the Delta variant has “changed the game,” as it is more transmissible. They want the university to institute rapid testing and also share ventilation and filtration data to help ensure classrooms and lecture halls are safe for students and staff.

“The very last thing any of us would like to see if for students, faculty, and staff to fall ill and force us to pivot back online,” it read.

“We also do not want our community to be the cause of additional stress on our healthcare system.”

Without those measures, “campus shutdowns are inevitable,” the group says.

WE WANT A CAREFUL APPROACH: STUDENTS’ UNION

Computer science professor Nelson Amaral and one of the letter’s signatories said the U of A should follow the example of leading universities across the border in mandating campus-wide vaccines.

“A number of leading universities in the U.S. are mandating vaccines because of the easy propagation of the delta variant,” Amaral said.

The professor said that while mandatory vaccination was not always considered the best option for the return to campus, the recent announcement of changes in COVID-19 contact tracing and testing for Alberta has changed many faculty members’ minds.

“I think it is time for us to reconsider for us to reconsider what we are doing,” Amaral said.

“For students who will be in massive classrooms and moving from one large classroom to another, I think that will be important,” he added. “The university environment is the perfect environment to propagate an airborne virus, given the dynamic interactions between people.”

Rowan Ley, University of Alberta Students’ Union president, said while the vast majority of students want to return to in-person learning and ditch Zoom classes for good, there needs to be protections in place for campus safety.

“Our main priority in the fall is making sure that we all come back to campus, because we are all sick of online learning, but that we do it in a way that is safe,” Rowan said.

“There’s no benefit to us risking it all and jumping into unvaccinated, unmasked classes,” he told CTV News Edmonton.

Representing more than 30,000 undergraduate students, Ley said there needs to be more protections in place for students – especially in high-risk areas of COVID-19 transmission, like students living in residences.

“What we want to see is a careful, cautious, and deliberate approach,” he added.

The International Students’ Association (ISA) says it wants more classes offered online and supports so that students not living in Canada can continue to progress in their studies as many travel restrictions remain.

“The University as a whole need to be better prepared for Fall 2021,” ISA president Chanpreet Singh said in a statement.

MANDATORY VACCINES FOR THOSE IN RESIDENCE

The Students’ Union would like the university to consider vaccine mandates for those living in residence.

“Living in residence is extremely high risk,” Ley said. “You have thousands of people packed into densely populated buildings, sharing bathrooms and cafeterias. An outbreak in residence could travel very quickly and spread very far.”

Concordia University of Edmonton is mandating mandatory immunizations for those choosing to live in one of their residences. The University of Ottawa has taken a similar approach while Seneca College in Toronto is making vaccines mandatory for anyone “teaching, learning and working” on campus.

The provincial government in Alberta is opposed to mandating campus-wide immunizations and says there is no mechanism to do so.

“I would have concern if there were opportunities,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said, “to compel people to release their personal health information.”

MacEwan University will not require staff or students to be vaccinated. Students living in residence will be asked to voluntarily disclose if they are fully immunized against COVID-19.

“Whatever the response, it will not be used to determine whether they can live in residence,” said MacEwan spokesperson Allan Linklater. “The information will be used as a path to offer support related to COVID if needed.”

Linklater added that MacEwan is encouraging staff and students to get vaccinated.

“The university continues to consult with our community, including our student, faculty and staff associations as we implement our fall plans. We are confident that the majority of our community will make decisions that protect their own health as well as the health of others.”

Ley said many students at the U of A indicated that even though they are fully vaccinated, they want absolute safety from COVID-19 by having masks and a campus-wide vaccine mandate to ensure those who are immunocompromised or who live with someone who is, are protected.

“In the interest of making sure everyone feels safe on campus and making sure this is an inclusive and safe place to be, if we all need to get vaccinated and wear masks just a little bit longer, then that is the right thing to do to make sure we can all feel safe.”

Alejandro Alvarez, a master’s student at the U of A, believes mandatory vaccines should be implemented to protect students and faculty.

“I personally think it would be nice to be mandatory,” he said with specific exceptions for religious or health reason. “For most people it should be mandatory to keep this herd immunity, especially within the U of A, to keep it pretty safe.

“I’m nervous just in terms of cases to see how fast they rise, especially with the new Delta variant,” he added.

For student Kala Reid, she plans to wear a mask if cases continue to rise.

“Ultimately, when it comes down to it, what is better for the community as a whole is definitely more important,” Reid said. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Touria Izri