Universities, colleges taking varied approaches to COVID-19 as students set to return to campus

As students make their way onto Canadian post-secondary campuses for a new term, some may be facing starkly different pandemic protocols than when they last left. A patchwork of approaches is emerging, depending on the college or university.

Grab bag of measures, from mask and booster shot mandates to encouragement

A young man wearing a blue button-down shirt and glasses stands outside a university building looking to off to the distance.

Early this week, Western University in London, Ont., announced an updated vaccine requirement — mandating a primary series of shots plus one booster for everyone returning to campus — along with resuming masking indoors for the fall.

The news garnered an immediate reaction from students.

Ethan Gardner, president of Western's University Students' Council, has been fielding a barrage of communications from his peers. While some are upset with the timing — "They feel like it was short notice for the upcoming school year" — others have protested "the consistency of the announcements over the last year, including this summer," he said.

"Some students just want a definitive reasoning as to why this decision was made, backed by some body of science."

As students make their way onto Canadian post-secondary campuses for a new term, some may be facing starkly different pandemic protocols than when they last left.

A patchwork of approaches is emerging, depending on the college or university, with a rare few mandating booster shots, some bringing back masking and the vast majority — for now — simply encouraging the two, along with staying home when ill.

WATCH | Students, experts wary of relying on booster mandates for return to campus:

Vaccine booster rules spark backlash at Western University

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Western University in London, Ont., is facing a growing backlash among some students for requiring booster shots for the upcoming term. Western says its policy is in keeping with schools like Harvard. But critics — including some health experts — suggest the move is unnecessary.

At this point, very few schools have taken the same path as Western. According to university officials, Western's decision is part of its effort to do "everything we can to protect in-person learning and a great on-campus experience," Florentine Strzelczyk, the school's provost and vice-president (academic), told CBC News in a statement.

"Our approach is informed by consultation with our medical experts and the Western community, and mirrors several of North America's largest universities, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and Yale per [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations."

Huron University College, a Western-affiliated school also located in London, Ont., followed Western's lead by updating vaccine mandates for this fall. Just a few weeks earlier, the University of Toronto announced booster shots will be required this fall, but only for those students living in its residences.

"The goal of the mandate is to support the health and well-being of students in residence and enable them to get the most out of their on-campus experience. Living in residence creates a unique set of conditions that require special precautions," U of T said in a statement in early August.

Policies can vary within a region or city

Bringing back masking indoors has been a touch more popular: Dalhousie University in Halifax, the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and Saint John, and Memorial University across Newfoundland and Labrador are among the schools reintroducing it. According to The Canadian Press, masks are being mandated this fall at 14 out of 83 universities recently surveyed by the news agency.

More broadly, the majority of schools are hewing to the general messaging from provincial health authorities — which encourage COVID-19 boosters when eligible and practices such as masking in crowded settings and staying home when ill. However, because schools set their own rules, this means post-secondary policies can vary within a region, a city or even a single neighbourhood.

For instance, Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., is requiring masks for the fall term. But Durham College, which shares some campus space next door, paused its policy last spring. In Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba has mandated masking indoors this fall, but other post-secondary schools in the city have not. Colleges and universities across Nova Scotia are also split.

With her university having dropped vaccination and masking requirements by the end of the spring term, Madelyn Mackintosh is uneasy about the very different pandemic policies she'll find back at McGill University in Montreal this fall.

A young woman with long red hair and wearing a grey McGill University sweatshirt stands in a front garden outside a house.

Last spring, she was finishing up her first year, limited to online classes only and living in a residence that saw a major COVID-19 outbreak — along with punitive measures for students caught in hallways without a mask, found with multiple people in their room or hosting guests from outside.

This autumn, however, "we've come to terms with the fact that measures are going to be pretty lax [at school] because measures in broader society are pretty lax," she said.

Having experienced limited support when she and her dorm-mates were isolating, Mackintosh said she's feeling wary about future outbreaks. The bachelor of sciences student asked: Why would those who have symptoms or even test positive choose to isolate and risk missing class if school policies don't exist to support that decision?

A 'patchwork of immunity' among Canadians

While Dr. Zain Chagla appreciates that higher education officials have a tricky job "trying to navigate how to keep the school year as safe as possible," he said they should be encouraging positive public health behaviours, improving ventilation, making COVID-19 tests readily accessible for people when sick and establishing safe spaces to isolate (with food, mental health and other supports) for those who test positive for COVID-19 in order to minimize disruptions to their school year.

"If those things are put in place, you'll get some bang for the buck," said the infectious diseases physician and associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Chagla said he doesn't believe mandating boosters, for instance, is the best course of action, given the "patchwork of immunity" across the Canadian population and the waning efficacy of booster doses over time.

"It's the reason why settings like health care have stopped at two doses for the most part, recognizing that it's become incredibly complex now, when we can't simply mandate vaccines when everyone has had their different COVID immunity experience."

WATCH | Masks, access to tests, sick day supports can protect campuses, says physician:

Masks indoors, sick day supports: how officials can keep supporting campus communities

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Infectious disease physician and researcher Lisa Barrett shares suggestions on how college and university officials can continue supporting their campus communities through another pandemic school term.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at Dalhousie University, similarly noted that at this point, there are a host of supportive measures — "easy things" — that school officials can opt for this fall versus requiring boosters.

"Practical access to [COVID-19] tests, masks, on-campus vaccination, great sick day and hybrid learning opportunities would all be ways for us to care about our communities together and still be in the same space more than we were before," said the Halifax-based physician.

"If the reason [for a booster requirement] is to prevent infection and transmission, there may be some challenges to the data that actually support that that [additional] dose is going to do that, for any period of time."

Disagreement over vaccine mandates

With outbreaks in residences and classes pushed to virtual, "schools have been burned by what happened in previous waves," Dr. Samir Gupta, a respirologist and clinician-scientist at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, said in an interview on CBC News Network earlier this week.

While he recommends individuals get a booster for protection against severe coronavirus disease, Gupta noted that with the latest variants, boosters are not as effective at preventing any infection or transmission.

"If the premise is to say: 'We really want to protect our students. We don't want you to get severe disease, so we're asking you to go out and get that third shot,'" a booster can be a good idea, said the associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

WATCH | 'Omicron is just a very different virus,' says Dr. Samir Gupta:

Western University mandates 3rd COVID-19 dose, mandatory masks in return to campus

2 days ago

Duration 6:48

Canada Tonight’s Ginella Massa speaks to Canada Tonight medical contributor Dr. Samir Gupta about a decision by Western University in London, Ont., to require vaccine boosters and masks for returning students.

"But if the premise is to say: 'We want to avoid outbreaks, we don't want our classrooms to shut down. We don't want our dorms to shut down,' the science doesn't really support that a third dose is necessarily going to do that. The masking part of that mandate? Absolutely. That's the way you're going to mitigate spread."

However, there are some infectious disease specialists who feel a vaccine mandate for post-secondary settings does make a difference.

"There is no question that mandating a booster will reduce illness in the population for whom the booster is mandated and will reduce the fact that those people will transmit to other people," said Dr. Allison McGeer, a medical microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.

"I have no idea what universities are going to decide to do, but I can see why universities are worried about the quality of education that they can provide and how much difference a vaccine mandate might make."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Wong

Senior digital writer

Based in Toronto, Jessica Wong covers Canadian education stories for CBC News. She previously covered arts and entertainment news, both national and international, and has been a digital journalist for CBC since 2001. You can reach her at Jessica.Wong@cbc.ca.

    With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Adam Miller, Nazima Walji and The Canadian Press

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