After weeks of advocacy from faculty unions and pressure from students, the University of Winnipeg (U of W) is set to follow in the footsteps of other Canadian universities by implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the fall term.
Set to partially open its doors to offer more than 40 per cent in-person classes on Sept. 7, the U of W will now require that students attending these classes “must show proof of full vaccination or attest to being partially vaccinated and provide proof within a specified timeframe,” according to the Aug. 19 announcement. The University of Manitoba and Red River College have also mandated vaccines on campus.
“Vaccines are the best protection we have against COVID-19. By ensuring that everyone on campus is protected, we go the extra mile to keep Manitoba healthy and increase the likelihood of an even fuller campus reopening for the winter term,” Dr. James Currie, the interim president and vice-chancellor of the U of W said in a press release.
Alongside the vaccine mandate, the U of W’s COVID-19 FAQ sheet states that masks will be required in all indoor spaces throughout the fall term. This policy will be re-evaluated in the winter term. Students will be asked to use a self-screening tool prior to arriving on campus and to not attend in-person classes if they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.
Emma Rannie, a fourth-year U of W biology student, says she considered refraining from attending in-person classes and labs unless the U of W implemented a vaccine mandate. The news of an on-campus vaccination requirement comes as a relief to Rannie and other students, faculty and staff who called for a vaccine mandate.
“Having a vaccination mandate will go a long way towards ensuring a safe environment to learn and prosper,” Christopher Wiebe, a professor of chemistry at the U of W, says.
The decision also comes after significant pressure from the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association (UWFA). At an emergency meeting on Aug. 9, the UWFA members voted “strongly in favour” of a motion to call on the U of W to implement a mandatory vaccine requirement.
Similarly, the Manitoba Organization of Faculty of Associations (MOFA) called on university administrations in Manitoba to mandate that students, staff and faculty be vaccinated if they wish to attend on-campus classes.
“We think that's the safest, best and fastest way to get campuses back to normal,” Scott Forbes, the president of MOFA, says.
In a U of W Meeting of the Senate held on Wednesday, May 26, Currie, had advised that implementing mandatory vaccinations could present a “multitude of privacy and legal issues.” Minutes to the most recent emergency senate meeting held on Aug. 11 were not publicly available at the time of writing, nor was Currie available to speak with The Uniter.
Before the vaccine mandate was announced, some faculty members had expressed that they weren’t able to give adequate input into the university’s reopening plan.
“Many of us have felt that we are just beholden to whatever the university decides,” Alyson Brickey, an assistant professor of English at the U of W, says. “At this point, a lot of us are wanting them to make decisions that take our safety into account, our students’ safety into account and all our families’ as well.”
As a parent, Brickey says one of her greatest concerns with the previous reopening plan was for faculty, staff and students – like herself – with children at home who are too young to be eligible for the vaccine.
In an interview with The Uniter on Aug. 12, Wade Carriere, the director of security and risk management at the U of W, had stated that there was “no direction or indication” that the university would be implementing a vaccine mandate.
However, after a recent survey was sent out to U of W students, faculty and staff to gauge their opinions on the university’s current reopening plans and mandates, the university administration rapidly changed their policies.
Of those who responded to the questionnaire, 79 per cent of faculty and staff members and 72 per cent of students supported the implementation of a vaccine mandate. It was also reported that 92 per cent of students and 97 per cent of faculty and staff who took the survey were fully or partially vaccinated.
“Our vaccination requirement may inconvenience a few people, but it will give peace of mind to many. Above all, we believe it is the right thing to do. Hopefully, this mandate will motivate everyone in our community to consider the safety of themselves and others so that we may all feel positive about returning to campus,” Currie said in a press release.
Once an undergraduate student at the university himself, Wiebe recalls the U of W as being a safe environment because of how supportive faculty and students were.
“I think the concern that most professors have at the University of Winnipeg is for their students. It’s for their well-being,” Wiebe says.
Wiebe feels the vaccine mandate is a way to ensure current U of W students can arrive on campus with a sense of safety and peace of mind, as well as reduced anxiety about being in the classroom.
“We really have to step forward, be progressive and set an example,” Wiebe says.
Published in Volume 75, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 20, 2021)