With the Fall Term fast approaching, the long-awaited return to the University of Saskatchewan campus is on everyone’s minds. For the university workers who will be expected to return to in-person activity, however, the return is not without its concerns.
William Buschert, a sessional lecturer in philosophy and president of CUPE 3287, the union representing U of S sessional lecturers, says that the union’s members have been coming to the group with worries for their health and wellbeing as they prepare to return to campus.
“The university should be doing everything that it reasonably can to protect the health of our members,” Buschert said.
In late April, both CUPE 3287 and the U of S Faculty Association passed motions calling for the university to make vaccinations mandatory for those returning to campus in the fall unless medically exempt.
Allison Muri, an English professor and USFA chair, says that the motion arose from workers’ concerns surrounding the volume of people that will be on campus in the Fall Term, which the university has announced will see greater in-person activity, with plans to be fully out of pandemic operations by the Winter Term. According to a May COVID-19 update, the university expects administrative staff who interact directly with students to return to campus in the fall.
“The best way to prevent the spread of this disease is not to hang around with people in crowded situations indoors for a long time — so that was definitely a concern,” Muri said.
“The second best way, of course, is to have the vast majority of people vaccinated.”
According to an Angus Reid Institute survey, nearly one in four Saskatchewan residents is unconvinced about COVID-19 vaccination. The number has remained mostly unchanged since the start of the year. With Saskatchewan leading the nation in vaccine hesitancy, Muri says that the population’s reluctance and the local anti-vaxxer demonstrations are a worry in the effort to have a safe return to in-pearson teaching.
“I have hopes that we will have 80 to 90 per cent of people returning to campus fully vaccinated by the time they return to campus, but there’s certainly no guarantee of that,” Muri said.
Soon after CUPE 3287 and USFA’s calls for mandatory vaccination, the university released a statement announcing that they are not planning to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for students, faculty and staff in the fall.
“Current indications are that most of the campus community will be vaccinated by the fall term,” the statement reads. “The U of S strongly recommends everyone gets vaccinated when eligible.”
The Government of Saskatchewan anticipates that all residents will be able to be fully vaccinated by July 31, with second doses being distributed in the same order of priority as the first doses.
While vaccinations will likely be widely available for people coming back to campus in the fall, Muri says that the USFA executive was disappointed after the university’s decision not to plan for mandatory vaccinations. Muri says that, though the university is encouraging people to get vaccinated, it might not be enough to combat the hesitancy in the province.
“I don’t think a strong recommendation really carries much weight with anybody who’s anti-vaxxer or who’s got concerns about the safety of the vaccines — a recommendation isn’t really going to be all that compelling,” Muri said.
Buschert says that aside from the individual and public health concerns, introducing policy on vaccines is an opportunity for the U of S to be a leader in combating vaccine hesitancy by being the first Canadian university to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccination. In terms of precedent, over 100 universities in the United States have made vaccines mandatory for their campuses, and the U of S already has immunization requirements for medical students, though they do not currently include the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The University of Saskatchewan as a university should be leading the way in the face of vaccine hesitancy… If a university can’t get in place a serious policy to directly deal with the public health challenge of COVID-19, well, what kind of institution can?” Buschert said.
“Precedents get set when they have to be set, and this is an unprecedented situation in modern times.”
Although Buschert is disappointed that the university “isn’t taking a more proactive approach,” he says that he is not particularly upset at the university’s decision and hopes that the university will change their mind if vaccination rates show an increased need for a vaccine policy.
“The U of S administration has been responding to a very difficult, fast-moving situation. And I think, on the whole, they’ve been doing their best,” Buschert said.
Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology, says that even though vaccines “give us a way to get back to the university,” even a high rate of vaccinations will not be enough to secure the safety of the community on its own.
“By September, there’ll be a significant proportion of those who will be fully vaccinated. That will reduce the transmissions and reduce the negative impact of COVID, but it’s not going to eliminate it,” Muhajarine said.
“The vaccines are not a panacea — it is not a magic solution — so it is important that we can keep the public health measures … that we have been doing all along since last March.”
About the workers’ concerns that the university might become a site of COVID-19 outbreaks, Muhajarine says that “super spreading events can actually happen pretty much any time, any place when there are large groups of people congregating, and particularly without precautions or without adhering to public health measures.” Outbreaks in campuses were common in the Canadian universities in the 2020-21 academic year.
Looking at the upcoming term, Muri says that there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered aside from that of mandatory vaccination. The May COVID-19 update that announced the “transitional” Fall Term “doesn’t really alleviate apprehensions about how this is actually going to work in full,” she says.
“We’re going to have up to 120 students in classrooms — we’re not going to be able to maintain social distancing. Some of our larger classrooms have poor ventilation and no windows,” Muri said. “So I would have to say that there are a lot of a lot of concerns about the return.”
Muhajarine says that some important considerations for the Fall Term are that people should wear masks and maintain two metres distance from each other, particularly in classroom settings. Additionally, he says that the university needs to have updated ventilation systems with upgraded filters in place.
“All students, professors and staff will be spending a lot of time inside these buildings, particularly in the winter,” Muhajarine said.
Buschert says that the university has not yet communicated clear plans or policies in regards to safety measures for the return to campus. The Sheaf reached out to the university for further information on the safety and health measures for the Fall Term, but they declined to comment at this time.
In the next updates from the university, Buschert hopes to see fleshed out policies for social distancing, masking and mask supplies, and dealing with non-compliance. He also wants to know whether individual faculty members will be required to teach face-to-face if they prefer not to.
“I’d like to see some specifics… It would be nice to see some more specific guidance from university administration. As things stand, a lot of that is still left up in the air, and understandably since it’s a quickly-changing situation,” Buschert said.
“But we’re starting to wind down the clock heading towards the Fall Term.”
In the meantime, Buschert expects that CUPE 3287 will continue to advocate for a mandatory vaccination policy.
While Muhajarine is of the opinion that educating is more productive than enforcing when it comes to vaccines, he hopes that the university and the worker associations will still work together in determining the rest of the plans for the much-anticipated return to campus.
“Students, they want to hear the same message coming from their professors, the administration, the staff and all the people they interact with, rather than two or three messages,” Muhajarine said.
“I’m hoping that the university associations and the administration can speak with one voice.”
Ana Cristina Camacho | Editor-in-Chief
Photos: Nicholas Saretzky | Contributing Photojournalist, Supplied by Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, @usask via Instagram