Post-secondary schools navigate fall return as Alberta lifts more COVID-19 measures

Click to play video: 'Post-secondary schools navigate fall return as Alberta lifts more COVID-19 measures'
Post-secondary schools navigate fall return as Alberta lifts more COVID-19 measures
Students and faculty at Alberta universities are calling for mandated COVID-19 safety protocols before returning to campus this fall. Kendra Slugoski has more – Aug 10, 2021

As university and college students soak up the final weeks of summer in Alberta, many are already stressed.

Marla Roth, a student at the University of Alberta, said no mandatory masking or other COVID-19 rules on campus has put her on edge.

“I think it’s terrifying,” said Roth. “What’s hard for me, as a vaccinated person, it’s hard to imagine my anxiety is back to early on in the pandemic where nobody was vaccinated.”

Roth said masking would make her more comfortable, especially since she won’t know if the person sitting beside her has been vaccinated.

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Midhat Rizvi, another U of A student, said crowded lecture halls and study areas will also make her feel uneasy.

“If they’re inside classrooms and people are sitting very close together, I think masks would be a great option, especially because we don’t really know who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated.”

Click to play video: 'No more masks on  transit, isolation of positive COVID-19 cases come Aug. 16 in Alberta'
No more masks on transit, isolation of positive COVID-19 cases come Aug. 16 in Alberta

Vaccination rates among 20 to 24 year olds in Alberta are among the lowest in the province. Just over 51 per cent have now received two doses of the vaccine.

University of Alberta

That statistic has led the U of A Students’ Union to call on Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health and the University of Alberta to mandate more COVID-19 protection.

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In its letter to Hinshaw, the students’ union said the university may be a high-risk environment and called on the top doctor to give the university clear guidance on how to open safely this fall.

“We don’t know how much of that protection exists on our campus,” said Rowan Ley, president of the U of A Students’ Union.

Ley said students are worried that switching from online to in-person learning on campus is going from “zero to 100 too quickly.”

“While students can choose not to go to parties or to sports games if they’re not comfortable doing so, they can’t choose to not go to class,” Ley said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta changes COVID-19 masking, isolation, testing rules'
Alberta changes COVID-19 masking, isolation, testing rules

The Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta is asking that instructors be allowed to require masking in their classes, labs, seminars, and offices; two metres of physical distance be required in all indoor spaces; regular and transparent monitoring and reporting of air quality be done; and, the ability, if these requirements are not being met and members feel unsafe, for instructors to move their course online as they feel necessary.

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“What the president is talking about it recommending, encouraging, asking, promoting,” said Ricardo Acuña, president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta (AASUA).

“They’re not actually talking about mandating any hazard controls and that’s the concern to our members.”

The students’ union also urged the U of A administration to mandate mandatory vaccinations (for medically eligible students) in all dormitory-style residences.

A greater number of students will be living on campus in residences this fall, said Shelby Soke, advisor of Strategic Initiatives and Issues Management for U of A External Relations.

She said vaccinations are available on North Campus through the University Health Centre and Pharmacy and will remain available throughout the fall term.

“The U of A will also be hosting a series of mass COVID-19 vaccination clinics on our campuses, one of which is located within residence to support this effort,” Soke said.

Click to play video: 'Mix of in-person, online learning gives University of Alberta students mixed reaction'
Mix of in-person, online learning gives University of Alberta students mixed reaction

In a letter posted Aug. 6, university president Bill Flanagan explained how the U of A was preparing for a phased return in the fall.

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While vaccination won’t be mandatory, he said it will be highly encouraged and very accessible through mass vaccination clinics. While masks won’t be mandatory, the rule may be re-imposed if there is a temporary outbreak, and “faculty, staff, and students who choose to wear them are encouraged to do so.”

On July 28, the province announced close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 would no longer being notified by contact tracers, nor were they required to isolate. The province also ended asymptomatic testing.

Starting Aug. 16, infected individuals will no longer be legally required to isolate either.

MacEwan University

MacEwan University’s website indicates more details about course delivery will be released in fall course outlines “available in late August.”

The school said it will use various instruction methods, including in-person, online and hybrid.

A spokesperson for MacEwan University said its residence has a capacity of 860 students and about 500 are expected to move in at the end of August.

The school said applications for residence are still being accepted and it hopes to fill more rooms through the fall term.

The dorm rooms have a maximum occupancy of two residents.

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“Students who will be living in on-campus housing will be asked if they are vaccinated and that will be left up to voluntary disclosure,” said Allan Linklater, communications for MacEwan University.

“Whatever the response, it will not be used to determine whether they can live in residence.

“The information will be used as a path to offer support related to COVID if needed.”

Click to play video: 'Sisters call on Kingston post-secondary institutions to implement mandatory vaccine policy'
Sisters call on Kingston post-secondary institutions to implement mandatory vaccine policy

He explained MacEwan is “aligning with provincial directives that state the COVID-19 immunization will not be mandatory, but it is highly encouraged and recommended.”

Linklater said the university has arranged for isolation suites for any resident who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19.

The first day of classes for the fall term is Sept. 8.

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University of Calgary

In an update Wednesday, president and vice-chancellor Ed McCauley described the University of Calgary as a “highly vaccinated environment.”

He shared community survey results which show more than 90 per cent of respondents expect to be fully vaccinated by fall.

“It is clear that the most important thing that can be done to protect the health and safety of our community is vaccination,” McCauley wrote.

He said in addition to a drop-in vaccine clinic in MacEwan Student Centre, the school is working with AHS to set up more vaccination clinics on campus in September.

Rapid testing will be introduced for university residences, varsity athletics and “field schools where individuals are residing on site.” The university is paying for those tests, McCauley said. “Ongoing testing will not be required of those who volunteer proof of full vaccination.”

He said since the province is ending “central contact tracing,” the university will provide a service where, if you test positive for COVID-19 and opt in, the school will notify your close contacts on your behalf.

“It is also vitally important if you are sick that you do not come to campus,” McCauley wrote. “If you do test positive for COVID-19, please stay home. Meanwhile, our teams will continue to deep clean areas where someone has tested positive.”

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Masks are recommended in all U of C buildings and residences.

“This is consistent with guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, both which formally recommend mask use indoors.”

Masks are mandatory in patient clinics and transportation settings.

“As we return to campus, it’s important that we remember to be kind to each other and show each other some charity,” McCauley wrote. “Let’s do what we can to make each other comfortable. The top of this list is getting vaccinated. We also recommend mask wearing. While you may not feel a personal need, it can put others at ease.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 cases among people in their 20s growing quickly'
COVID-19 cases among people in their 20s growing quickly

Mount Royal University and SAIT

Meanwhile, both Mount Royal University (MRU) and SAIT said they’re working on finalizing their plans.

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In a statement to Global News, MRU said it continues to review on-campus health measures.

“The health and well-being of the campus community is important to us and any updates to protocols will be communicated in advance of the fall semester.”

Officials at SAIT said they plans to continue to offer some programs virtually for the upcoming fall term.

“Through the innovation and adaptability of our instructors during the pandemic, SAIT adapted a lot of in-person programming to online delivery and found it to be successful, and preferred, for many learners,” SAIT spokesperson Chris Gerritsen said. “For the fall term, we are offering several programs through a range of delivery options to provide flexibility and choice to students as we work to prepare them for the future.”

Calls for on-campus vaccination

Alberta’s Opposition NDP called for on-campus vaccination clinics at every post-secondary school in Alberta, as well as COVID-19 testing and an $83-million fund for additional sanitization.

“Students and staff are scared and confused,” said David Eggen, the NDP’s advanced education critic. “They’re eager to return to classes but they want to do so safely.”

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Lorian Hardcastle, an associate law professor specializing in health law and policy at the University of Calgary, said Alberta universities should consider mandatory vaccinations.

She pointed to a number of schools in Ontario, like Seneca College in the Greater Toronto Area, which has mandated vaccines for on-campus activities.

Western University in London, Ont., has required all students living in residences to be fully vaccinated no later than Oct. 22, 2021.

“People are concerned of the idea of being in classes with people who are positive, unmasked, unvaccinated,” said Hardcastle. “So I think that universities need to look at all of their options.”

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Click to play video: 'Alberta’s COVID-19 reopening plan was developed by chief medical officer and team: Kenney'
Alberta’s COVID-19 reopening plan was developed by chief medical officer and team: Kenney

Hardcastle said those options should include mandatory masks, rapid testing for those who aren’t vaccinated and updated ventilation systems.

“They can’t do nothing. The vaccine would probably be the best thing. The gold standard.”

Hardcastle said she believes universities feel pressured by the Alberta government, and budget cuts are hanging over the publicly funded schools.

“They’re in a difficult position between potentially sacrificing some government funding or attracting the ire of the government,” said Hardcastle, “but at the same time, they do have those duties to students, staff and faculty.”

Hardcastle believes the preference of everyone on campuses is to take precautions rather than risk being pushed back online.

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At the very least, the associate professor said universities must be transparent and show the public the policy options that were considered.

— With files from Emily Mertz and Tracy Nagai, Global News

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