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As provincial COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, universities must figure out how to proceed

Across the country, administrators are having to balance a range of factors as they consider what measures they are willing to enforce and for how long.

BY EMILY BARON CADLOFF | MAY 09 2022

In Ontario, all COVID-19 mandates, including masking and capacity requirements, were lifted as of April 27. But in Nova Scotia, vaccination and masking are still required in certain settings. While each province is easing restrictions at different rates, most areas of the country are rolling back their previous mandates. That’s left universities to reevaluate their plans.

Many institutions, like York University, used the winter term as a guide and kept masking and vaccination orders in place. But other schools, like Université Laval, chose differently, taking into account government regulations and local infection numbers.

“Here in Manitoba, cases are not dropping off, and if anything, there’s a slight uptick in hospitalizations. I think maintaining the masking mandate is useful and appropriate,” said Mark Torchia, chair of the COVID-19 recovery steering committee at the University of Manitoba. The provincial government removed most public health guidelines mid-March, but the university decided to continue enforcing physical distancing and masking policies indefinitely. As Dr. Torchia puts it, with 40,000 people circulating on and around the campus regularly, the school felt they had a duty to continue with the restrictions. “We chose something that we felt was appropriate for our local environment, given what the pandemic is doing,” he said. “It’s a complex decision. And one that we evaluate on an ongoing basis.”

Enforcement challenges

Dr. Torchia and the steering committee also took into consideration what other similarly sized universities were doing, looking to other members of the U15 for guidance. One of those member schools, the University of Alberta, has taken a markedly different approach. The U of A dropped its vaccination requirement in late February, and suspended its masking mandate in March. This is in line with provincial guidelines, which Andrew Sharman, vice-president of facilities and operations at the university, said was a big factor in their decision.

“Once restrictions are removed, it becomes very hard to mandate and to actually enforce, and the enforcement is the biggest issue,” Mr. Sharman said. He cited contractors who come to work temporarily at the university as an example, since COVID-19 rules on their work site can vary from those in the surrounding buildings. Mr. Sharman said he noticed similar enforcement issues cropping up when the City of Edmonton decided to keep its face-covering bylaw in place, after the provincial government lifted its mask mandate on March 1.

Making these decisions is one thing. Communicating them to faculty and students is another. And the response has been a mixed bag. Dr. Torchia at the U of Manitoba said the majority of responses he’s received from students and staff support continuing the mask requirements, though there have been a few angry emails. Mr. Sharman said some U of Alberta students and faculty criticized the decision to lift the mandates, but notes that the university is monitoring infection and wastewater rates closely and will reinstate any policies as needed.

Navigating ‘difficult circumstances’

Cape Breton University recently did just that. In mid-March, CBU announced its decision to drop its mask mandate and vaccination policy, making it the first university in Atlantic Canada to do so. Just two days later, it reversed the suspension, keeping masks in place until the end of the spring term. The back and forth irked many faculty members, who were upset at what they viewed as a lack of consultation with those “on the frontlines,” said Calvin Howley, president of the CBU faculty association. “We know what’s going on in our classes.” When the school announced the masking orders would be lifted, Mr. Howley said faculty brought forward concerns that were “summarily dismissed” by the administration, which made the faculty feel their input was “irrelevant.”

A spokesperson for CBU told University Affairs that while the school does take guidance from the province’s department of health, other stakeholders, including unions and student groups, were consulted. “We were not always communicating a popular decision or a decision that everyone wanted to hear,” the spokesperson said in an email. “While we did hear from some employees who were unhappy, we also heard from other employees who were appreciative of the work being done and the decisions being made under difficult circumstances.”

Throughout the pandemic, schools have had to balance their safety requirements with the social benefits of living or working on campus. While that was not the determining factor in their decision, Mr. Sharman said it did play a role at the U of Alberta. “We have noticed mental health issues, both with our staff and our students. The isolation has not been good.”

Meanwhile, Université de Moncton, which has roughly a tenth of the student population spread over three campuses, has made the opposite choice. They will no longer require proof of vaccination but will continue to require masks on campus through the summer semester and perhaps into the fall term as well. Gabriel Cormier, vice-president of human resources and administration, said they would need to see changes across the whole of New Brunswick before they would consider any major shifts. “We’d be looking at community transmission. What are the numbers in the region? Do we have transmission on campus? Are our hospitals overcrowded?” He said the school will continue to monitor case counts and will reevaluate their position toward the end of May. But it’s too early to say when they will ease up on their restrictions.

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