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There Is No “Back to Normal”

McGill must implement vaccination and accommodation policies with return to campus

While many post-secondary institutions move toward enforcing mandatory vaccination for the return to campus in Fall 2021, McGill University has chosen not to mandate vaccination, thereby putting students, faculty, and the communities in which they live at risk. In a letter to the McGill community released on August 19, titled “The question of mandatory vaccination,” Provost Christopher Manfredi attempted to address the growing concern over McGill’s return to campus. Within this letter, Manfredi details why McGill University will not be implementing a vaccine mandate, citing Quebec law as the main inhibitor in putting forward such a policy. However, members of the community, including 35 members of McGill’s Law faculty, pointed out glaring inconsistencies in Manfredi’s and the university’s reasoning, such as a definite absence of legal precedent to justify lack of mandated vaccinations on campus. McGill’s administration has chosen to prioritize profit over public health, blatantly disregarding the safety of the school and the Montreal community.

The potential ramifications of returning to campus without required vaccinations are serious and dangerous for all community members, but especially for individuals with an increased risk for both contracting COVID-19 and suffering severe symptoms. These conditions include but are not limited to: “diabetes, hypertension, asthma, chronic lung disease, severe heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, obesity or a weakened immune system.” In addition, the effectiveness of vaccines in immunocompromised individuals is significantly lower; only 50 per cent show an antibody response after being fully vaccinated.

As case numbers continue to increase across Canada, the responsibility of facilitating a safe return to campus has been largely left up to individual post secondary institutions. Seneca College was the first post-secondary institution in Canada to lay out a comprehensive vaccination policy, requiring individuals on campus to produce proof of vaccination. Included in this policy is a grace period to receive a second dose of the vaccine. However, Canada’s top research universities are lagging in producing actionable vaccine requirements, as evidenced by a list created by Western University’s Health Ethics, Law and Policy (HELP) lab. Of the 15 universities listed (of which McGill is one), only six have concrete vaccination mandates. 

However, a vaccine mandate must not disregard systemic barriers; many marginalized communities have more difficulty accessing vaccination services, while others experience greater risk of abuse within the healthcare system. To accommodate these inequities, an integral aspect of a mandatory vaccination policy at McGill is an online learning option. In recognizing that the reasons for remaining unvaccinated are often complex and varied, it is important to acknowledge that those who do not wish to be vaccinated for any reason are still entitled to an education. Online alternatives that do not require reason or proof to receive accommodations are integral to providing McGill community members with a voice in their own health and education.

Currently, McGill requires all students to be on campus, regardless of their situations. Many international students who returned to their home countries during the pandemic are now expected to return to Montreal, despite travel restrictions imposed by Canada. The only accommodation provided by McGill  – which is also not guaranteed – is allowing these students to ask their professors for online alternatives during the first two weeks of school, with little consideration for how they might continue their studies for the rest of the semester. This potentially forces students to take dangerous and often expensive travel routes to return in time for their studies. For instance, Canada has imposed a ban on direct flights from India since April 21, announcing no definite date of when the ban would be lifted. With a lack of online alternatives, their only other option is to disrupt their studies and take a leave of absence, thus delaying their graduation and negatively impacting their future plans, such as applying for Post-Graduate Work Permits.  

On their frequently asked questions page, McGill shows a complete disregard for ensuring that educational access is fair and equitable. Instead of supporting disabled and chronically ill students who cannot return to campus, McGill stated the following: “An inability to come to campus this Fall may require students to adjust their registration, defer, or take a leave of absence.” McGill is forcing disabled students to leave school by denying them accommodations.

SSMU has also voiced concerns over the administration’s approach to the return to in-person campus activities. In an open letter released on August 11, SSMU called to question both the policies the administration has put forward as well as their transparency in implementing those policies. Amongst the demands listed in the letter are providing clear guidelines and accommodations for students, staff, and instructors who are immunocompromised, vulnerable to COVID, or otherwise unable to attend in-person activities. The accommodations listed in the letter would greatly increase equity in the return to primarily in-person schooling, such as the prohibition of mandatory in-person attendance, mandatory lecture recordings and learning materials, and increasing student representation in meetings where COVID guidelines are being decided. The policies outlined by SSMU in this letter are not only timely but essential if the university wants to ensure accessibility and education in the coming months.

The rhetoric of “getting back to normal” disregards the inequities faced by many marginalized groups prior to the pandemic and prioritizes the comfort of the privileged – specifically those who are able-bodied, economically secure, and white. The pandemic is not over, and the potential harm of returning to campus affects marginalized communities at a far higher rate.
It is important to remember that viewing health on an individual level, rather than as a collective, harms the community. Prioritizing safety for all includes advocating for the rights of the oppressed and those who are at a greater risk of harm. It is equally important to continue following public health guidelines: limit in person interactions, socially distance, wear masks whenever possible, and get vaccinated. If you can, attend the protest being organized by SSMU today, September 1, at the James Administration Building to demand a safe, accessible learning environment.