Alberta’s advanced education minister has advised post-secondary schools he expects them to align with the province’s COVID-19 policies and welcome students back to in-person learning without proof of vaccination and mask mandates next month.
In a letter to schools Wednesday, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said he expects Alberta universities, colleges and polytechnics to align their COVID-19 policies and practices with those of the Alberta government.
On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney announced the province’s three-step plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions, including the end of the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) effective at midnight Wednesday. This means Albertans no longer need to show proof of double vaccination or a negative rapid COVID-19 test result to enter businesses operating under the program.
The plan will also see the province’s mask mandate lifted as soon as March 1.
“Essentially, post-secondary institutions will have the full ability to return to pre-pandemic delivery without the need to enforce physical distancing, implement proof of vaccination programs and masking effective March 1,” Nicolaides wrote.
“I am eager to see students returning to in-person learning without masking and proof of vaccination requirements this March.”
The advanced education minister said in a Thursday interview with Global News that he has not had conversations with any board chairs or presidents since penning the letter.
“(Post-secondary institutions) don’t participate in the REP program. They have flexibility to put in their own (rules). What we announced (in our Tuesday plan) doesn’t impact them immediately, but if everything proceeds according to plan in terms of a reduction of hospitalizations, we can make additional plans.”
The majority of schools had planned to return to in-person learning at the end of February. The minister said he believes that continues to be the case.
“And that’s an approach I support and I think a lot of our students support as well.”
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When asked what will happen if a post-secondary chooses not to align with the expectations, the minister said he respects their decision.
“(Each institution’s) board of governors is empowered and charged to make the decision that’s best for the institution. So, that’s their call at the end of the day. I think it’s important for my position as minister to let them know where government is going and where government would like to see our institutions get to. I’m confident we will get there.”
The University of Alberta said Thursday morning it is reviewing the letter and will provide an update as soon as it can. In a statement posted after the premier’s news conference Tuesday, the U of A said there will be no immediate change to the current campus safety measures.
The university said its CampusReady system will remain in place as it is not part of the Alberta government’s REP. CampusReady required all students, staff and faculty to show proof of vaccination or an exemption before coming to any U of A campus.
On Thursday night, the U of A issued a new statement, confirming it will not be immediately bringing in any changes to masking requirements on campus, at least not for “the next couple of months.”
“To comply with City of Edmonton bylaws and to help us transition back to full capacity, in-person activities over the next couple of months, there will be no immediate changes to our masking safety measure,” president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan said. “Masks will continue to be required in all university indoor shared spaces.
“We will continue to watch provincial, municipal and public health expert updates as their planned steps move ahead.”
The statement did not indicate that there would be any change to the university’s proof-of-vaccination policy.
Rowan Ley is the president of the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU).
He said whether to return to campus or not was already a divisive issue before the government urged universities to remove public health measures.
“I was disappointed (reading the letter),” Ley said. “Thousands of students have made plans for the semester based on the expectations the university made to them about vaccines and masking. It’s not fair to pull the rug out. Our expectation is that the university will continue to meet those expectations.”
Ley said UASU has conducted some initial polling to see how students are feeling. As of Thursday morning, about 500 people had responded.
“The vast majority of students do not support the minister’s announcement. It’s pretty consistent. In no faculty do more than 22 per cent of students support the letter,” he said.
“We were all coming back on Feb. 28 anyway. The shock was the minister’s letter. That’s what there is opposition to.”
In mid-January, several post-secondary institutions — including the universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge — announced they would not be returning to in-person learning before Feb. 28.
In a letter to the university community Thursday, the U of C said it will return to in-person teaching and instruction on Feb. 28, as originally planned.
The U of C said masking will still be required until the end of winter term. At that time, masking will become optional.
When it comes to mandatory vaccines, the university said proof of vaccination will not be required to enrol in courses after the winter term. The university pointed out its vaccination rate is 99 per cent.
The University of Calgary Students’ Union said it is “alarmed” by the advanced education minister’s letter. In a statement, the students’ union is calling on the university and its board of directors to push back and oppose.
“Students are hesitant to return to in-person learning at the end of the month even with common sense health measures in place,” said SU president Nicole Schmidt. “Students certainly do not feel safe without mandatory health measures. It was just over a month ago that students began the semester online and now the minister and UCP government want to return, almost immediately, to pre-pandemic delivery.”
In a statement, the Students’ Association of MacEwan University said it is concerned about the impact of lifting vaccine and mask mandates.
SAMU said students are eager to benefit once again from in-person learning, but only “when the adequate safety measures are in place.”
SAMU is asking for the continuation of mask and vaccine/rapid test mandates on campus.
“The number one concern with in-person classes for students is household safety. Only eight per cent of our students live alone, which means managing household risk is an ongoing challenge for the overwhelming majority of MacEwan students,” said SAMU president Myles Dykes.
“This is in addition to the challenges that face students with a mid-semester change from online learning to in-person classes, further limiting student success.”
Prior to the minister sending his letter, Calgary’s Mount Royal University also said there would not be any changes to their current directives as the province announced eased public health measures.
Nicolaides said as students return to campus, universities should continue to promote vaccination.
With files from Morgan Black and Phil Heidenreich, Global News.