Most public colleges and universities in Manitoba have ruled out requiring students who live on campus to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall, but a mandate for student housing residents is still on the table at two schools.
Western University made headlines last week, when it publicized that students who live in its residences in London, Ont., during the upcoming school year will be required to have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, assuming Ontario’s supply allows it.
While the University of Winnipeg and Red River College are still considering options, the University of Manitoba, Saint Boniface University, Brandon University, and University College of the North do not plan to implement a vaccine mandate for residents of student housing.
"We strongly encourage all U of M community members to be vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible, but do not plan to request or require proof of vaccination," spokesman Chris Rutkowski said in an email. Asked why Manitoba’s largest post-secondary institution has taken this stance, he said U of M has no further details.
"There’s a pretty good case for requiring (vaccination) if students are going to live in the same household — they’re sharing the same kitchen facilities and bathrooms and living spaces and they’re socializing," said Prof. Arthur Schafer, who researches biomedical ethics at the U of M.
The philosophy professor said there are reasons to mandate vaccines. He cited the threat of new variants, the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing both severe illness and death, and the fact some vulnerable students might not be able to get immunized or produce antibodies.
In southwestern Ontario, students who plan to live on campus at Western will be asked to get vaccinated before their arrival. Those who cannot access the shot beforehand will have the opportunity to get immunized within two weeks following their move-in date.
Should a student be unable to receive a vaccine for medical or other reasons, they can request an accommodation.
"The health of our community is a shared responsibility," said Western president Alan Shepard. "We’re asking students to play an important role in keeping themselves, their friends and classmates, and our community safe and healthy."
The local health region has endorsed the requirement.
Registrar Colin Russell said the U of W is watching how Western and other schools in Canada address immunization, as it plans for fall. While the school anticipates its housing will look similar to how it did this year, with 30 per cent capacity and a dedicated quarantine floor, Russell said public health orders will dictate operations.
Single cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in downtown residences this year, but he noted there were no outbreaks at U of W.
The U of M has been posting cases in the university community this year. As of June 1, there have been 87 positive cases on its campuses.
Despite no outbreaks on local campuses in 2020-21, Schafer said there is no guarantee that will be the case during the upcoming school year.
Meantime, the U of M students union is promoting immunization among students on social media and via mass emails.
"Our fall semester will be online indefinitely, but the projection is that after Thanksgiving there will be no mask requirements or social distancing requirements on campus," UMSU president Brendan Scott said in a statement.
"In the weeks leading up to the holiday, UMSU will be informing students that it is crucial to be vaccinated to partake in campus activities."
The department that oversees post-secondary education is working on back-to-school guidelines in partnership with public health.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.