To get back onto campus, Canadian post-secondary students are coming face-to-face with new COVID-19 vaccination policies — many only announced or confirmed by school officials in recent weeks.
Policies vary between institutions, ranging from full mandates requiring verified proof-of-vaccination to campus-wide rapid testing with exemptions for those fully vaccinated. And, what’s greeting students as they head in for their lectures and labs also differs by school.
While some systems are being praised for getting students and staff safely back on campus, others are leaving questions about just how the new policies are being enforced.
Here’s what some students shared with CBC News about the new steps required to hit campus in-person this year.
Green means go
The University of Winnipeg introduced a straightforward process to grant students, faculty and staff access to school, says Kirt Hayer, president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.
At the start of term, the university opened a large centre where students and staff brought their school identification cards as well as their proof of vaccination. Many flashed new Manitoba COVID-19 Immunization Cards or pulled up a QR code on their smartphones, but staffers were also ready to accept other documents, Hayer noted. They kept references at the ready showing what proof-of-vaccination looks like in other Canadian jurisdictions or international regions.
Once verified, a green sticker was then placed on a person’s school ID card, granting them full access to campus. Those partially vaccinated or lacking proof of full vaccination got an orange sticker granting access until Oct. 15. After that date, only those with green stickers will be allowed on campus. Those unvaccinated due to medical exemptions must complete a special application.
“It was a very simple process…. It takes less than 30 seconds,” said Hayer, who volunteered at the verification centre as school got underway.
“To access campus, you show a security guard your sticker and they let you in if you have a sticker. And if you don’t have a sticker, then they deny you access to campus.”
With guards checking IDs at a limited number of spots for people to enter, Hayer believes the system has so far been a secure way to make campus safer for those returning. About 40 per cent of classes are being held in-person, he said.
Students “want to stay safe and they don’t want another outbreak and for classes to be interrupted,” he said.
“It’s a good initiative so that students can have the on-campus experience that they really want.”
There’s an app for that
At Seneca College in Toronto, the school’s mid-June announcement of a strict on-campus vaccine mandate meant officials had the summer to fine-tune the logistics. The school’s technology-forward plan rests on a new smartphone app that encompasses both proof of vaccination verification as well as a mandatory daily health screening.
That app is linked to Seneca’s existing student and staff ID system, explained Aidan D’Souza, a student mentor who also volunteered at the start of term to guide his peers through the new process.
After students submit their proof of vaccination within the app and receive approval from a secure Seneca team, they then use it for health screening every day before coming to campus. The app is linked to student ID they must scan at one of several new kiosks located at a few designated entrances on campus, D’Souza said. Security guards stationed at these doors monitor the entrance-scanning process.
“We have student ambassadors all over at our entrances for support,” he said. The system has experienced few glitches, he noted.
“It’s quick, easy. This is my second week on campus and a lot of students are getting adjusted to the new routine.”
D’Souza says he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from fellow students about the school’s mandatory vaccination policy and, personally, also appreciates some of the other new pandemic-era tweaks to campus life, like being able to do curbside pick-up at the bookstore or put in a meal pick-up order to avoid lining up in the cafeteria area.
“Students are just happy to be back on campus and getting back to a normal routine.”
Leaning on ‘personal accountability’
Starting her first year at the University of Ottawa and moving into residence just four days before the fall term started, Madeline Fleming soon experienced a glitch with the school’s new vaccination policy.
Required to submit proof of vaccination as of Sept. 1, she did so and received an “approved” message. Days later however, an email arrived stating she was not approved to stay in residence due to missing vaccination records. She quickly resubmitted and has fingers crossed her info is now properly confirmed.
U of O has also required students fill out a health screening form online every day, but beyond seeing a few posted signs serving as reminders, Fleming wonders just how mandatory a policy it is: she hasn’t noticed instances of anyone verifying whether students have completed it.
“They’re going at it from a point of like personal accountability,” Fleming said. “[School officials] claim through their emails and their posts that they are to be enforcing it and that it is mandatory. However, on-campus there is no physical enforcement whatsoever.”
U of O did not respond to CBC’s request for comment about its system.
Whether anyone’s checking is indeed emerging as a sticking point, including at larger institutions directly integrated with city neighbourhoods and more likely to have a myriad of entry points.
For instance at the University of Toronto — the main campus of which stretches across a large chunk of downtown Toronto — everyone must be vaccinated, upload proof of it and also complete a daily health screening in its dedicated UCheck online system in order to come on-campus.
Community members “may be asked to show they have completed” these requirements, according to a statement from a U of T spokesperson. The university declined an interview.
However, some students and faculty members have pointed out that inconsistent verification — or lack of it, essentially relying on an honour system — is a major concern.
“This is very distressing since other key measures — including occupancy limits and physical distancing — have been removed,” Terezia Zoric, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association, said in a statement.
“This performance of safety with little real safety is another broken promise.”
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt
Via CBC News