In the wake of U of T’s announcement of a vaccine “requirement,” mandating that community members returning to campus in the fall semester must self-declare their vaccine status, organizations like the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the policy.
The UTSU and UTFA also denounced U of T’s lack of transparency surrounding other COVID-19 regulations for the fall semester, such as physical distancing, capacity limits, and mask wearing.
Proof of vaccination concerns
While the university did announce that vaccination would be mandatory for all those returning to campus, many have pointed out that the announcement did not come with any change in policy. The announcement of a vaccine mandate is not effectively any different than the previous policy, which required that all members of the community self-declare their vaccination status, and get tested every two weeks if they are unvaccinated or if they do not declare their vaccination status.
At the time, the announcement on July 29 was described as a vaccination requirement only for those in residences or participating in high risk activities, who will have to provide proof of vaccination.
U of T’s policy since July 29 remains that students will be required to self declare whether they have been vaccinated and, if they answer that they have not been or would prefer not to say, they will have to take rapid screening COVID-19 tests twice a week and get a negative result within 72 hours of coming to campus. A U of T spokesperson did not respond to the question of how test results would be verified.
In an open letter, UTFA President Terezia Zorić wrote that the announcement was “misleading” and a “repackaging” of the previous policy. She noted that it was disappointing that the university will not require any proof of vaccination outside of students participating in high risk activities.
In a statement to The Varsity regarding the criticism, a U of T spokesperson pointed out that the province has not instituted a vaccine requirement for any sector.
The spokesperson wrote, “In the absence of a legal framework and supporting tools like a digital vaccination record or passport, we are requiring self-declaration with additional safety measures like rapid screening for those who are not fully vaccinated. This is a similar approach to that taken by several of our partner organizations.”
However, three other colleges and universities in Ontario — Seneca College, Western University, and Fleming College — are requiring proof of vaccination, while Brock University might ask students for proof.
The spokesperson noted that U of T is considering implementing the requirement for proof of vaccination in other areas.
Moreover, Zorić wrote that the university had still not complied with the minimum standards for safety outlined in the Health and Safety Checklist for University Re-opening that was provided to the university by the UTFA in conjunction with the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902 and United Steelworkers Local 1998. Zorić wrote that the checklist was developed by “U of T’s internationally recognized public health and indoor air quality experts.”
“This checklist recognizes that vaccinations alone cannot keep us safe,” Zorić wrote. “It sets minimum standards for improved ventilation, physical distancing in classrooms and common areas, and masking requirements. Once again, we urge the Administration to implement the comprehensive checklist.”
U of T outlined its 12-step plan to return safely to in-person activities in a U of T News article.
While the UTSU commended the university’s announcement that vaccines will be a requirement for the fall semester, it noted the lack of proof of vaccinations and accommodations for those who cannot attend in-person, demanding that the university require proof of vaccination with some exceptions.
The union also pointed to a survey conducted by the Arts & Science Students’ Union, which concluded that only 30 per cent of students who responded to the survey said that they feel entirely safe returning to campus in the fall. It criticized the university for not offering more online options to select groups of students, such as those who are immunocompromised or international students, who may face more barriers to returning to campus. The UTSU added that these options are also necessary for students who might get sick and can’t attend class.
Furthermore, some students expressed fear via social media that U of T pointed to the mandate instead of providing more detailed plans on how it will keep students safe in other ways. These students agree that measures like physical distancing and strict mask wearing are still vital to the safety of the community.
Need for transparency
In her letter, Zorić wrote that the UTFA is frustrated with the university because of a lack of clarity on how an in-person fall semester would look. She wrote that, without the adoption of the guidelines the UTFA had set out, faculty and librarians were concerned about teaching in classrooms filled to capacity and without proper ventilation.
Zorić emphasized the need for the university to implement measurable standards in an unambiguous way. She claimed that the university continues to refuse to meet with student, staff, and faculty representatives so that the community can collaborate to keep itself safe.
The UTSU echoed this sentiment, writing that students’ feelings of anxiety over returning to campus seemed to “stem primarily from the lack of detailed, frequent, and transparent communication from the University and its administrative bodies.”
The union added that the university should provide statistics on the percentage of community members who had been fully vaccinated at frequent intervals, clarify its policy on physical distancing and capacity limits, and provide a backup plan for course delivery and crisis management in the case of any COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.
“As it currently stands, U of T’s reopening plan places the university on the precipice of damaging its reputation and violating its core values as a member of the academic community at-large,” the UTSU’s open letter concluded.
Editor’s note (August 16): A previous version of this article claimed that the University of Ottawa was requiring proof of vaccination, which it is not.