On one hand, it seems like a no-brainer to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory on college and university campuses.
Afterall, scientific evidence proves that vaccination reduces the risk of transmission. That can only ensure students, staff and faculty will be safer this fall.
Still, while the movement towards mandatory vaccinations for students is on fire at U.S. campuses, no university or college here in Canada has said they will require it for their students.
Indeed, it appears no one has even been able to make a decision on the issue, despite the fact that vaccination mandates, even in public schools for other diseases such as measles, are nothing new in Canada.
“It is too early to say what the world will look like at the beginning of the next academic year,” said a spokesman for Universities Canada. “Our recommendation to students and universities is to keep the lines of communication open, and to continue to observe current local, provincial, and federal public health guidance,” said Ryan Kennery.
What’s happening in the U.S.?
Contrast that to the action universities are taking in the United States to require students to get a COVID-19 vaccination before they can step foot on campus this fall.
In California, two of that country’s largest university systems, the University of California and California State University, say they will require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students, faculty and staff at campuses this fall.
“Together, the CSU and UC enroll and employ more than one million students and employees across 33 major university campuses, so this is the most comprehensive and consequential university plan for COVID-19 vaccines in the country,” said CSU’s chancellor, Joseph I. Castro.
Private universities are leaning toward mandatory vaccination as well. Stanford University, for example, will require students to be vaccinated. Those who can’t for medical or religious reasons will be required to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
Other universities, including Rutgers, Brown, Cornell and Northeastern, have also told students they must get vaccinated. These institutions say they want to achieve herd immunity on campus to allow them to loosen spacing restrictions in classrooms and dorms.
Other universities and colleges in the U.S. are using a carrot approach, holding vaccination blitzes to get students immunized before they leave for the summer, or giving out T-shirts, free courses and even cash to incentivize students to get the vaccine.
Dickinson State University recently encouraged students to get vaccinated, for example, by saying those who could show proof of complete vaccination would be exempt from their campus-wide mask mandate.
Of course, this is much easier to implement in the U.S. which has a larger vaccine supply.
The situation in Canada
Young students in Canada are not even eligible for vaccination yet.
“Without enough vaccine supply, a mandate wouldn’t really make much sense and would be unfair to those who are willing, but unable to be vaccinated,” says Maxwell Smith, co-director of the Health Ethics, Law and Policy Lab at Western University.
That’s not to say it would be unethical to require a vaccination for students to be on campus if there was enough supply available, says the assistant professor who is also an associate member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy.
“We know that Canadian universities and colleges have been able to offer educational offerings online over the past year,” he says. “Consequently, vaccination mandates should not deny students education opportunities, but may change the modality in which they receive those education opportunities.”
In addition, he points out that vaccination mandates “do not force people to get vaccinated, nor do they usually come with criminal sanctions in cases of non-compliance.”
Instead, they impose conditions on those who are not vaccinated. For example, students could be barred from attending classes in person through registration holds or refused rooms in residences. In rare cases, they could face expulsion.
That doesn’t mean there are not ethical issues involved.
“Mandatory vaccination should be considered only if it is necessary for, and proportionate to, the achievement of an important public health goal, like protecting the most vulnerable, protecting health system capacity, or achieving herd immunity,” says Smith.
As well, authorities must first consider whether they can achieve public health objectives through public education. There is a risk, he warns, that a vaccination mandate “could threaten public trust and lead to further (vaccine) hesitancy.”
Kerry Bowman, a professor at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, believes mandatory vaccination may be “going too far.”
He thinks students should be encouraged to get vaccinated, and he absolutely believes they will.
The ethicist, who specializes in vaccine and equity passports, says he is not seeing “a lot of vaccine hesitancy or denial,” among students. “I think the uptake will be significant.”
Indeed, he believes most students “absolutely get that vaccination is not just about them, at all.” It’s about keeping others safe. Those who live in multi-generational homes get that, he says.
Prof. Smith agrees. He believes students are not just open to getting vaccinated but may actually be supportive of vaccination mandates.
“Most of them (students) also desperately want to return to in-person learning and may see vaccination mandates as a means of helping achieve that,” he says.
That said, there will be those who see a mandate as “an unjustified infringement on their liberties.”
But whose concerns about “infringements” are more important, he wonders.
Some students might see the absence of vaccination mandates on campus as an infringement on their own health because of the risks of transmission among university populations.
Though universities across Canada curtailed in-person learning on campuses for the fall and winter semesters, there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 in university dormitories, including at Western as recently as March 2.
Meanwhile, The New York Times collected data that showed university and college students contribute significantly to transmission of COVID-19 cases in the United States. That could very well apply to Canadian students when they are on campus, as well.
In the first month of 2021, for example, the Times found that 120,000 cases had been linked to American colleges and universities, and more than 530,000 since the beginning of the pandemic.
Are campuses even going to open this fall?
All of this is a moot point if campuses don’t plan to re-open for in-person learning this fall.
But, while it’s unclear whether all universities will re-open their campuses in September, there appears to be movement in that direction.
Western and Queen’s Universities have both announced a return to some on-campus learning.
The University of Toronto says it must follow the public health guidelines in the hot spots of Toronto and Mississauga where its campuses are located.
“We will not ask anyone to come to campus until our government and public health agencies have told us that it’s safe to open and that the safety and well-being of our community can be assured,” the university said.
But even that comment suggests they will open their campuses if it is deemed safe.
So, what do students have to say?
Sebastien Lalonde, a spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, says his organization’s members would oppose any mandatory requirement for a vaccine before students can access a campus.
“Not everyone can access it because of the disastrous rollout in Ontario,” he points out. That is disheartening, he says, because it threatens the ability of universities to re-open their campuses.
But even if the vaccine was more widely and easily available, the federation would not want to see a “tiered system” for those who can fully access their education versus those who can’t.
“It’s creating further barriers to education,” he says. “And it isn’t going to help folks feel more comfortable getting the vaccine.”
And encouraging students to get the vaccine, after all, is the goal, he points out.
But making it mandatory, he insists, is a step too far.