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“The debate is ongoing, and it is to be followed, but the conversation has started around the country.” Image: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum

University of Ottawa emphasizing no decision has been made on mandating vaccination for in-person courses in the fall

The University of Ottawa will follow the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) lead when it comes to the possibility of making vaccination mandatory for students attending in-person lectures in the fall, indicated president Jacques Frémont at the university’s senate meeting on Monday. 

“With the COU there’s a conversation about whether universities could make vaccination compulsory on campuses for students and/or staff,” said Frémont. “We are still in the preliminary phases but clearly it raises many legal issues and legal challenges. It doesn’t look as if it is a dominant hypothesis right now, but the conversation is going on and the studies are being conducted.” 

According to Frémont, lawyers are asking themselves if it’s possible to prove that vaccination reduces contamination, as this has not been proven yet. Unless universities are able to prove this, they have no legal power to make vaccination mandatory for staff and students. 

“If you speak to public health people, for them, it’s a no-brainer universities need to be role models and everyone should be vaccinated,” added the U of O president. 

The COU was unable to provide the Fulcrum with a comment when asked about its studies and the chances of the council advising universities to impose a compulsory vaccination policy. In an email to the Fulcrum, the U of O further emphasized that at this time no decision has been made.

“The debate is ongoing, and it is to be followed, but the conversation has started around the country,” concluded Frémont.

The university plans to host between 30 and 50 per cent of courses in-person on campus for the Fall 2021 semester. According to Jill Scott, the university’s provost and vice-president academic affairs, most of these courses will be third- and fourth-year courses which have smaller enrolment numbers than general first- and second-year courses.

Frémont was also asked on Monday, if any decision on adopting a compulsory vaccination policy would allow for students vaccinated with vaccines not currently approved by Health Canada to attend in-person lectures. Frémont differed to Sanni Yaya, the university’s vice-president, international and francophonie to answer the question.

“We are not there yet, I would be very surprised that vaccination be made compulsory by universities, I think there are a lot of steps,” said Yaya. 

“The data we have from the World Health Organization indicates that the vaccines we are talking about, the Russian Sputnik vaccine and the Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, are relatively effective.” 

Yaya said this is something that the university will have to look into further. 

Unions advocating for safe return to campus, treading fine line when it comes to compulsory vaccination

When asked about compulsory vaccination, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) did not take a definitive stance on the issue. 

“We think the question of mandatory vaccination is best determined by scientists and public health officials, although we all want a safe return to campus,” wrote the UOSU’s Executive Committee in a message to the Fulcrum. 

“The UOSU Executive encourages students and all members of the university community to get vaccinated as soon as it is their turn. We will be doing our part as members of the community to share information and challenge misinformation about vaccines in order to ensure community safety.”

As for the APUO, they did not directly address the compulsory vaccination issue, preferring to advocate for a safe return to campus that includes access to vaccines for all. 

“We hope the Central Administration will work with public health authorities to make vaccination accessible on campus.”

On Monday, Scott confirmed that there will be a vaccination clinic opening on campus. However, no definite date for its opening has been set. The provost added that the university is working with Ottawa Public Health to get the clinic up and running. 

The APUO hopes the university will take all necessary health and safety measures to minimize the risk of transmission on campus.  

“We also hope the Central Administration will implement other important health and safety measures, like: masks should be worn as prescribed by public health authorities; hand sanitizing stations should be installed by every classroom, washroom and other essential campus facilities; and, classes or campus programming should only be planned in buildings where ventilation is safe, fitted, or retrofitted to ensure proper air circulation.”

According to the union, there has been a lack of communication and clarity from the university when it comes to sharing how it plans to handle health and safety on campus. 

The APUO said that the university has not yet responded to “repeated requests” from campus unions for clarity when it comes to whether students, professors, librarians or other U of O personnel will be provided with personal equipment, who will be in charge of managing flows of people in buildings, who will be sanitizing lecture halls and rooms between classes, and who will be responsible for enforcing COVID rules and protocols 

The APUO urged the university to consider how these health and safety measures could impact both students’ learning experience and quality of education. 

“We also urge the Central Administration to work in close partnership with the University’s Health and Safety Committee to plan its partial and full return to campus.”

In response to those concerns, the U of O said that it “continues to put in place all the necessary measures to ensure a safe and progressive return to campus, which respects all applicable health directives.”