The union representing Western University faculty is praising the school’s move to implement COVID-19 vaccine booster and mask mandates for the upcoming fall term while one of the institution’s affiliated colleges confirms it will go its own way on the matter.
The university announced on Monday that students and staff returning to campus will be required to have at least three COVID-19 shots and must wear medical-grade masks in classrooms and seminar rooms.
Students, faculty and staff are required to submit current proof of vaccination by Oct. 1.
Those living on campus are also required to get boosted before moving in, however Western says a two-week grace period will be offered. International students, meanwhile, must follow federal vaccination requirements.
In a statement Wednesday, the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) said it supported the move by Western brass and encouraged those on campus to wear masks not just in classrooms, but wherever indoor social distancing is not possible.
“Our priorities are to keep everyone safe and to minimize any disruption to teaching and learning which might result from widespread outbreaks,” the statement reads.
“While we applaud the decision to implement masking in instructional spaces, we encourage everyone to mask everywhere indoors that social distancing is not possible, and we will continue to advocate for broader indoor masking.”
Two of Western’s three affiliated colleges, Huron University College and King’s University College, say they will align with Western’s masking and vaccination policies, while Brescia University College is choosing to forego booster or masking mandates.
“Brescia is choosing to emphasize recommendations that align with each individual’s needs rather than dedicating important resources towards enforcing mandates,” Brescia spokesperson Rachel Macaulay said in an emailed statement to Global News.
“Our top priority is our students’ ability to access an inclusive and empowering education. Therefore, at this time, students will not be required to have their booster to attend classes or engage on Brescia’s campus.”
Macaulay said Brescia officials would continue to monitor public health guidelines and would re-evaluate the policy accordingly. They would also “continue to assess and follow regional public health recommendations, which may include the reintroduction of mandates on our campus.”
Asked whether Brescia was concerned its decision could undermine Western’s policy or sow frustration that Brescia students were being allowed to play by a different set of rules, Macaulay replied that they were empathetic with every student’s circumstance, and that they “would never want to cause any feelings of confusion or frustration.”
“We are not trying to play by different rules. Rather, we are grateful for the unique nature of our institution, in that our incoming class will include 300 students, whereas Western may be welcoming more than 6,000 new students this year,” she said.
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“We respect their decision-making, fully appreciate their policy, and honour that they are working hard to protect the best interests of their students, in the ways that best align with their campus.”
Other Ontario universities are taking varying approaches to COVID-19 vaccine mandates on campus this September.
Some are not requiring vaccines, opting instead to simply recommend that students keep up with their shots and wear masks. Others have yet to spell out their policies for the fall.
Locally, Fanshawe College announced last week that it would not implement a masking or vaccine mandate this fall. Roughly 65 per cent of its classes will be in-person. In comparison, roughly 90 per cent of Western classes will be in-person, according to the university.
Western says its plan to implement the mandates was informed by “consultation with our medical experts and the Western community,” and that it follows policy decisions implemented at other North American universities, including Brown, Columbia and Harvard.
“We’ve thought a lot about this decision. And we’ve heard from our campus community that it’s the right approach for us, and for our students,” said Florentine Strzelczyk, Western’s provost and vice-president for academic programs, in a statement.
“As always, we see a mixed response to our COVID protocols. We also hear a fair amount from people who are not part of the Western community,” her statement continues.
“We know our approach won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve also heard from many people, including students, that they’re pleased to see us use all the tools available to us to help keep them safe and to have a consistent in-person experience this year.”
Ontario lifted its COVID-19 requirements at the advice of chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore earlier this year, including provincial mask mandates and the requirement that vaccine policies be in place for various institutions.
On Thursday, Scott Clark, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, said in a statement that universities and colleges should follow the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health when it comes to COVID-related requirements at their institutions.
“Although post-secondary institutions are independent, our expectation is that they explore all available options to ensure all students can attend class in person where possible,” he said.
Speaking with The Canadian Press earlier this week, the president of Western’s University Student Council, Ethan Gardner, said the quick timeline for the policy change was the most common worry he had heard from students so far.
“The timeline is definitely a piece that we’re hearing a lot about,” he said in a phone interview. “Maybe if the information was delivered a bit earlier, it may have been easier.”
In a statement Thursday, Keemia Abbaszadeh, USC’s vice-president of communications and public affairs, said the student council was “collecting and listening to student feedback and gauging students’ responses to the updated COVID policy.”
“We will continue advocating to Western administration and uplifting the student voice to decision makers,” her statement read.
Western’s policy drew the ire of several federal Conservative leadership candidates, including Pierre Poilievre, Roman Baber and Leslyn Lewis.
A protest against the mandates has been planned for noon on Saturday at “Concrete Beach” outside of the University Community Centre building on campus.
The demonstration is being promoted by an online student group dubbed “students4agency” which formed in the wake of Western’s announcement.
“We’re students standing against UWO adding barriers to education and taking away our right to choose,” the group’s social media accounts say.
In a tweet, the group said that the demonstration would only be open students, parents, alumni, speakers, faculty and staff after being “informed of developing safety concerns from campus police.”
— with files from Global News’ Ryan Rocca, Amy Simon and The Canadian Press