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Seneca College students, staff required to have COVID-19 vaccines in order to be on campus

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WATCH ABOVE: Seneca College may be the first post-secondary institution in Canada to make a bold move requiring students and staff to be immunized against COVID-19 should they want to step foot on campus. Caryn Lieberman reports – Jul 13, 2021

As Ontario closes in on 60 per cent of all eligible adults receiving two COVID-19 vaccine doses, a Toronto-area college has announced it will be restricting access on campus to those who are fully immunized or those with medical or religious exemptions come September.

“As we’re able to come back more and reopen more, it just seemed honestly like the right thing to do and the logical thing to do given how much emphasis both our government but also, of course, more importantly probably, our public health leaders are putting on getting the vaccines,” David Agnew, the president of Seneca College, told Global News on Tuesday.

“We’re not forcing anybody, actually. We actually not making vaccines mandatory. We’re saying if you want to come on campus, you must be vaccinated.”

READ MORE: What employers can — and cannot — demand in Canada when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines

Agnew said domestic and international students, employees and contractors will all fall under the new policy.

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While those who can’t be vaccinated due to medical and religious reasons will be exempt, he said all those who have chosen not to be inoculated will be able to study and work from home through remote learning, pointing to “dozens” of online program options.

Agnew said in the absence of a provincewide policy, college officials felt they needed to have rules in place ahead of the upcoming semester.

“Honestly I would love government to come in and say these are the rules of the road because that makes it easier for everybody, but we can’t wait and we just think it’s absolutely necessary for the sake of the community,” he said.

READ MORE: Vaccination required for Western University students in residence

“I always say vaccines are one of the most selfless decisions you can make because you’re actually not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting the community.”

The decision is the latest policy announcement related to COVID-19 by Ontario post-secondary institutions. Others have announced vaccines will be required for those who want to live in residence, but no other institutions in the GTA have enacted a vaccination policy for in-person attendance.

Global News contacted the office of Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities to ask if a similar policy will required provincewide. Scott Clark, a spokesperson for Minister Jill Dunlop, reiterated that publicly funded post-secondary institutions are autonomous when it comes to administrative matters.

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“We know that Ontario postsecondary institutions remain committed to following rules set out by the chief medical officer of health, (the) local medical officer of health and their local bylaw officials. To keep students, faculty and staff safe, every school in Ontario has a program in place approved by their local medical officer of health,” he wrote.

Read more: Public Health Ontario COVID-19 data showing vaccines provide ‘high degree’ of protection

“We will continue to work with the (Ontario) Ministry of Health, chief medical officer of health and public health experts as we consult with our postsecondary institutions regarding campus reopening plans.”

Cara Faith Zwibel, a lawyer and the director of the fundamental freedoms program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told Global News there’s a concern Seneca College’s policy undermines that vaccination is supposed to be a choice.

She also said there’s concerns about unvaccinated individuals are being discriminated against because they can’t access the same services as others as well as keeping vaccination data private.

“Obviously safety is something we all care about and something we all want, and so it would be easy to justify an awful lot if we just said anything that keeps us safe is something that we want to do,” Zwibel said.

Read more: Woman urges mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for long-term care staff amid outbreak in Ontario

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“I think we have to recognize that ultimately the way individuals protect themselves from this virus is by making a decision to be vaccinated, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to force others to do that.

“The reality is that being vaccinated is very good protection against becoming seriously ill and dying, but it doesn’t prevent you from getting the virus and it doesn’t prevent you from transmitting the virus. There is a reduced risk as it seems like the evidence is saying that. I think we have to recognize there is a risk no matter what.”

However, when asked about the college’s decision to enact the vaccination policy for in-person attendance at its campuses, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health said she ultimately agreed with it.

“I am supportive of policies that will increase people being protected. As we’ve said, immunization is the most important measure people can take to protect themselves and others from this infection,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe told reporters Tuesday afternoon during a weekly COVID-19 update.

“They’re coming into the fall where they’re going to be congregating and we need to do whatever we can to improve the protection.”

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