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Back to school in Alberta, B.C. to include masks, proof of vaccination

Friday, August 27, 2021 @ 9:55 AM | By Ian Burns


As students in Alberta and British Columbia return to classes this fall amidst the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual assortment of bookbags and mobile phones will have to be supplemented by a mask — and in some cases proof of vaccination or a readiness to undergo testing.

Alberta’s three research-intensive universities, including the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, have established new protocols as part of a joint back to campus strategy for the fall. Starting Sept. 1, students, faculty and staff who are not fully vaccinated, and those who would prefer not to disclose their vaccine status, will need to regularly complete a rapid screening test and receive a negative result before they participate in in-person activities. Any individual who cannot be tested or vaccinated based on medical or other protected grounds recognized by the Alberta Human Rights Act can request an accommodation.

“A safe return to campus in the fall remains our top priority, and in a rapidly changing situation, we recognize the urgent need for additional measures within our campus communities,” said University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan. “I am pleased to co-operate with the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge on these policies — our shared commitment is to our students, faculty and staff and to put in place the precautions necessary to ensure a safe environment for in-person teaching and learning.”

Non-medical face masks are also required in all public indoor areas at the three schools where physical distancing is not possible. Those with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test will have to self-isolate.

“These expanded measures are a direct response to shifting COVID-19 conditions. Our health, law and public policy experts have been tracking the rise of cases and emergence of the delta variant, providing us with data-driven approaches,” said University of Calgary president Ed McCauley. “By working together with Alberta’s other research-intensive universities, we will continue to monitor and take the measures necessary to keep our community safe.”

Lorian Hardcastle, University of Calgary faculty of law

Lorian Hardcastle, University of Calgary faculty of law

Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor at the University of Calgary faculty of law who studies health-care regulation, said the Alberta schools’ joint statement was an improvement over what her school’s original plan, which recommended vaccination but did not require any form of proof of vaccination and led to concerns from faculty across the board.

“It was all voluntary and didn’t have a lot of teeth,” she said. “Certainly nothing is perfect, but it feels significantly safer — the universities didn’t go as stringent as some of the Ontario universities, but it still feels better to have something in place and of course that is supplemented by masking.”

Students in British Columbia will be returning to classes with a vibe that will be familiar to some but perhaps foreign to others. On Aug. 24, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a mask mandate for college and university campuses following the announcement that B.C. will be introducing a proof of vaccine requirement for some non-essential services, including a number of on-campus activities. The mask order will apply in all indoor public areas on campus including lobbies, hallways, stairwells, elevators, classrooms and labs. Accessing some non-essential services on campus will now require a proof of vaccination, including gyms, nightclubs and restaurants. Students who are living in on-campus housing will also require proof of vaccination.

And the basic framework provided by the province is also being supplemented by additional measures from the schools themselves, with UBC, the University of Victoria and Thompson Rivers University all saying Aug. 26 that they will be implementing some form of rapid testing system for faculty, students and staff.

Susan Breau, dean of the University of Victoria faculty of law, said it was “optimistically planned” in the spring that schools would open largely with business as usual this September — and then the fourth wave hit. But she also applauded the response of both the school and students to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months.

“In one way the shutdown was very said because we love having our students on campus, but in another way it is probably one of the highlights of my career because getting to lead a law school through an emergency like that and having faculty, staff and students respond in such a brilliant way to online learning, online meetings and all the restrictions,” she said. “I know the students were upset about not having a social life, that is understandable, but they handled the stress well.”

And the response of universities from across the country has usually included some conversation about vaccine mandates, with strong arguments on both sides of the issue on whether they would in fact pass constitutional muster. A number of University of Victoria law professors have signed off on an open letter to university officials asking for such a mandate despite protestations from Henry and others that schools may not have the authority to take such a step.

For her part, Hardcastle said questions remain as to whether the Charter even applies to post-secondary institutions, but even if it does she noted that Charter rights are not unlimited.

“And under provincial human rights law it would be difficult to just say everybody has to be vaccinated, end of story — the university would also have to think through how it would accommodate those who can’t get vaccinated, but that is not so much a barrier as them having to think about accommodation and that is something schools are well-versed in,” she said. “And then a third legal issue which tends to come up in this space is privacy law, but again that isn’t an insurmountable barrier — it just requires the university to be thoughtful about collecting information about how students are vaccinated and to make sure that they are collecting as little info as possible, that it is stored securely and disposed of when they no longer need it.”

Information on the University of Victoria’s COVID-19 response can be found here, with Thompson Rivers University here and the University of British Columbia here. For the University of Calgary please see here, and the University of Alberta here.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Ian Burns at Ian.Burns@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5906.