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Universities of Alberta, Calgary, Lethbridge to require unvaccinated students, staff to undergo rapid COVID-19 testing

Click to play video: 'Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge update COVID-19 policies' Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge update COVID-19 policies
WATCH: Rapid tests or COVID-19 vaccination will be required this fall to attend the universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge. Masks are also required as of now. As Fletcher Kent explains, the policy represents a significant policy shift. – Aug 17, 2021

While COVID-19 vaccines will not be mandatory for students and staff attending Alberta’s three major research-based universities this upcoming school year, the institutions will require rapid testing for those who are not fully vaccinated.

The universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge released their joint back-to-campus strategy on Tuesday morning. It focuses on welcoming back to campus as many students, faculty and staff and possible, while offering a safe on-site experience.

Rapid testing and vaccination

Effective Sept. 1, all three universities will require students, faculty and staff coming to campus to undergo rapid COVID-19 testing if they are not fully vaccinated. In addition, those who choose not to disclose their vaccination status will also been to regularly complete a rapid screening test and receive a negative result before they participate in activities in-person.

Those who are fully vaccinated will be exempt from the rapid testing protocol.

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Read more: Alberta’s post-secondary schools saying no to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations

The universities said people who cannot be vaccinated “based on medical or other protested grounds recognized by the Alberta Human Rights Act can request an accommodation.”

The schools are strongly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Immunization clinics are being planned for campuses.

“The Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge have chosen to put in place increased measures that they feel are best for their individual institutions,” Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides said in a statement.

“I believe it is critical to ensure that personal health information is kept private and that no one is required to take a vaccine to continue their learning and I feel the institutions in question have struck a sensible balance that will protect faculty, staff and students as they return to in-person learning.”

Mask policy

Non-medical face masks are mandatory on all three campuses in all public indoor areas where physical distancing is not possible, the university policy outlines.

Masks are not mandatory on campus under the following circumstances:

  • Working alone in private offices
  • Working outdoors and there is a minimum of two metres between people
  • Meeting indoors and there is a minimum of two metres between people
  • Working alone in a shared space
  • Working in a cubicle with plexiglass, wall, or other approved barrier between people and when not providing services to anyone
  • In a classroom where there is a minimum of two metres between instructor or among students

Read more: Ontario government mandating COVID-19 vaccine policies for high-risk settings

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Staying home when sick

Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, or those who test positive for the disease will be required to stay home and self-isolate. The symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Loss of sense of smell or taste
  • Sore throat (adults only)
  • Runny nose (adults only)
Click to play video: 'Edmonton public and Catholic school divisions release return-to-school plans' Edmonton public and Catholic school divisions release return-to-school plans
Edmonton public and Catholic school divisions release return-to-school plans – Aug 16, 2021

The joint statement on the policy issued Tuesday stated more information on campus-specific protocols will be released in the coming days.

“A safe return to campus in the fall remains our top priority, and in a rapidly changing situation, we recognize the urgent need for additional measures within our campus communities,” U of A president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan said in a statement.

“I am pleased to cooperate with the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge on these policies — our shared commitment is to our students, faculty and staff and to put in place the precautions necessary to ensure a safe environment for in-person teaching and learning.”

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Read more: What can be done about Alberta’s sluggish COVID-19 vaccination rate? Experts weigh in

Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor of the U of C, said these expanded measures are a direct response to shifting COVID-19 conditions.

“Our health, law and public policy experts have been tracking the rise of cases and emergence of the Delta variant, providing us with data-driven approaches. By working together with Alberta’s other research-intensive universities, we will continue to monitor and take the measures necessary to keep our community safe.”

U of L president and vice-chancellor stressed the health and safety of the campus communities is a top priority.

“Implementing these measures at Alberta’s research universities allows us to collectively return to in-person formats that minimizes the risk for our students, faculty, staff and external partners as well as the risk of having to pivot away from the face-to-face environment we have been waiting for,” Mike Mahon said in a statement.

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Read more: What will Canada’s 4th COVID-19 wave look like? Here’s what the experts, data say

The policy is a rather drastic shift from guidance issued earlier this month. On Aug. 6, the president of the U of A said masks would not be required when classes resumed this fall.

Following that guidance, there was some resistance to the measures from several students and staff on campus.

Jillian Pratt, president of the Non-Academic Staff Association at the U of A, said the shift in policy is welcome news.

“We believe that they have struck a balance between ensuring the health and safety of those on campus while also kind of respecting the individual autonomy and right to privacy of those who may choose not be vaccinated,” Pratt said.

Pratt said there are still many unknowns, including where testing sites will be set up and whether people who refuse to wear masks can be refused service.

Read more: Alberta not considering mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for certain jobs ‘at this time’

Dr. Lorian Hardcastle, assistant law professor who also works in the University of Calgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health, said the joint policy is a positive step in the right direction.

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“I think (the original plan) had no teeth,” Hardcastle told Rob Breakenridge.

“But certainly I was very pleased to see the university taking some steps to try to make sure the campus is safer in the fall with thousands of students descending upon the campus in mere weeks.”

But she still has questions about some of the details.

“We’re still waiting to find out more about what the rapid testing will look like in terms of frequency.”

Hardcastle deferred to her epidemiology colleagues for what an effective frequency of regular testing would look like, but did wonder about how universities would procure the tests ahead of September’s semester start.

“One of the problems that was the impetus behind (the universities’ new testing policy) was a lot of us were going into the school year thinking that testing, tracing, isolating — those basic public health measures — would be in place,” Hardcastle said Wednesday.

Read more: University of Calgary researchers develop COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy Guide for family physicians

“And I think that when the government quite suddenly said that they were going to cease those measures, a lot of institutions, universities, schools, even private businesses having to protect their staff, I think a lot of people were left scrambling.”

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Global News reached out to university administration public relations, who said no further comment would be made on the policy Tuesday.

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

The schools said the policy will be continually monitored as the pandemic evolves.

As of Monday afternoon, there were 5,354 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, with the vast majority of those — 4,354 — variant cases.

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions from the disease also continue to climb, with 161 people in hospital and 43 in the ICU Monday.

All Albertans 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Currently, 76.8 per cent of the eligible population has received at least one dose of vaccine and 67.9 per per cent are fully immunized.

Vaccination appointments can be booked online or by calling Health Link at 811.

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