Canada: Students confused and frustrated by Western University's COVID booster, mask mandate

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Students are frustrated by Western University's decision to make a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. © Colin Butler/CBC Students are frustrated by Western University's decision to make a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory.

Students at Western University are disappointed with the school's decision to implement masking and booster dose requirements for the fall semester, and waiting until after the tuition deadline to announce the measures.

Second-year student, Nathalia Aranda says she's confused about the justification that led to the decision and feels the university hasn't given students a solid answer.

"I just want to know the why, with statistics and a more in-depth reason, instead of it being a 'too bad so sad, you need to put your mask on and get your booster'," she said.

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On Monday, Western announced that it will require students, faculty, and staff to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and to have received one booster, and to be masked in classrooms and seminar rooms in order to safeguard in-person learning when classes start in September.

In a press release, the university said the decisions were based on extensive consultation with its science experts and the Western community. The updated vaccination policy, effective immediately, will require three doses of any combination of COVID-19 vaccines recognized by Health Canada.

"This decision supports the safety of our students, employees and our community with the goal of preserving our in-person experience," said Dr. Sonya Malone, Western's occupational health physician.

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Aranda, who has a booster shot, says she understands the importance of masking and vaccines, but can't grasp why the only place in the province that's making a third vaccine dose mandatory is her university.

"I chose to receive my booster, however I don't see why we need it to get an education," she said. "Why is it harder to get an education at Western than it is to go travel to another country? Because you don't need that booster to travel," she said.

In June, the Ontario government dropped its mask mandates in most settings. And although the province highly recommends getting a booster, it's not mandatory.

"We're thousands of students going to the same clubs, bars, libraries, and people live together. It doesn't make any sense. Is there something in the air that gets passed on in a classroom faster than a bar?", Aranda questioned.

'Mandate unwarranted'

Justin Alla was looking forward to enjoying his final year at the university when he starts the fourth year of his degree in September.

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"I was very excited to return to Western, my friends and I saw the restrictions lifted this summer and thought we can have somewhat normalcy for our last year, university is an experience and we want to have at least a little bit of that," he said.

Alla, who was at the end of his first year when the pandemic hit, says COVID restrictions have existed for the bulk of his university experience. He believes this mandate is unwarranted and wonders why Western dropped its mask mandate in June, only to reverse it two months later.

"It just came out of left field" he said. "They did a 180, they should've talked to their students and staff to see where we're at and how we're feeling in terms of the situation."

Third-year student, Mya Kestle feels duped. She believes the university could've communicated this sooner because right now students feel very unheard.

"They could've said it at the beginning of the summer, so that we had the summer before we paid tuition to decide if we wanted to go to a school that's requiring this mandate," she said.

For Kestle, if a third dose was required by the government, it would be easier to adapt to or make alternative choices like online classes, but right now the only place she needs a booster for is the university she's paying to attend, she said.

Western will require students living in residence to get their booster dose before moving in, but will offer a two-week grace period — and easy access to the campus vaccination clinic — for those students unable to get a booster before they arrive.

"Mitigating the risk of transmission of COVID-19, as well as of severe outcomes from the infection, can be effectively achieved with a combination of masking and vaccination," said public health physician, Dr. Saverio Stranges.

The updated policy requires all students, faculty, and staff to submit current proof of vaccination to the university by Oct. 1, 2022.

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