Colleges and universities should step up and make vaccination mandatory to study or teach


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Ontario’s government has all kinds of guidance for the province’s colleges and universities about reopening this fall.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/07/2021 (682 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ontario’s government has all kinds of guidance for the province’s colleges and universities about reopening this fall.

Inexplicably, though, the government is silent on the most important and most effective measure: making sure all students and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19.

This is a huge missed opportunity to make sure COVID doesn’t surge back once people head back to work and school in September.

Rick Madonik - Toronto Star David Agnew, president of Seneca College.

Everyone expects case numbers to rise then, but the question is how much. Will it be a modest and manageable increase that can be contained with standard public health measures? Or will it be a fourth wave that demands more restrictions, even another lockdown?

One pretty obvious way to make sure things keep under control is to increase vaccination among young people, especially the 18-to-29-year-old group which so far lags behind others in getting their shots (largely because they didn’t become eligible until weeks after older people).

And to that end, why not require everyone planning to attend in-person classes at college or university be vaccinated, and show proof that they’re protected?

The Ford government’s guidelines for post-secondary schools says they should plan to reopen fully in September, with no limits on class sizes and no physical distancing. It says face masks will still be required indoors and encourages schools to hold vaccine clinics, promote good hygiene, and offer rapid testing.

What it should say is that everyone on campus — students and staff alike — should be vaccinated. Anyone who isn’t vaccinated or has a very good reason not to be (such as a rare medical exemption) should stay away. Remote classes for you.

Some universities — University of Toronto and Ryerson among them — are requiring all students who want to live in residence to be vaccinated. But that isn’t good enough.

Everyone knows students will mix and mingle and socialize up-close in their first days back on campus. Masking requirements will go by the boards after hours. The potential for COVID to spread, especially among the unvaccinated, is enormous.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s new chief medical officer, says this of the 18-to-29 demographic (which includes the great majority of students): “They are the most social, they’re the most able to propagate the virus back into communities.”

Knowing all that, why on earth won’t the government require they take the single most effective step to prevent that from happening, and get their shots?

Only one institution, Seneca College, is showing the right kind of leadership on this front. It announced last week that anyone who wants to come on its three campuses in September — students, teachers and other staff — will have to be vaccinated.

Seneca’s president, David Agnew, explained its reasoning last week to CBC News: “We just think that if we’re serious about protecting the health and safety of all of our community then it’s the right thing and the logical thing to do.”

Seneca may be an outlier in Ontario, indeed in all of Canada, but Agnew points out that “we’re in pretty good company in North America.” Scores of top universities in the United States have announced mandatory vaccination policies for students and staff. They include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the entire New York and California public university systems. They know what needs to be done.

But Canadian governments won’t go there, and Ontario is following Premier Doug Ford’s vow not to make vaccination mandatory in any circumstances.

This is a wrong-headed approach. Decisions must be made now in order to make sure we have a safe fall without a major new upsurge in COVID. And the best way to do that is to get vaccination rates as high as possible, especially among groups that are lagging behind.

In the absence of leadership from Queen’s Park, other colleges and universities should step up. They should follow Seneca’s example and require vaccination as a condition of studying and teaching on campus this fall.

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