Vaccination mandates on post-secondary campuses have run their course and must never return
Commentary by Claus Rinner - 18 March 2022
Canada’s institutions of higher education have played a leading role in the morality play that was this country’s COVID-19 pandemic response. With the mRNA injections postulated as our way out of the pandemic throughout the summer of 2021, a flurry of activities emerged as Labour Day and the start of the fall semester approached.
Here in Ontario, the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health (COMOH) wrote a letter to all college and university presidents in the province on August 24, strongly recommending that:
Full vaccination against COVID-19 be required for all individuals involved in any in-person activities on campus (students, staff, faculty, contractors, and visitors), with the rare exception of those individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to permitted exemptions (medical and other protected grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code). Individuals are to be required to submit proof of vaccination.
The letter signed by Dr. Charles Gardner refers to vaccination as “the single most effective public heath measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19”. On the same day, the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), an association of the top administrators of the province’s 20 public universities, welcomed the COMOH recommendations. Their brief statement signed by COU President and CEO Steve Orsini reiterated the claim that vaccination reduces spread and is a “vital tool … to support a safe return to campus”.
Six days later, on August 30, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Dr. Kieran Moore, then issued formal instructions “to establish mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies in … post-secondary institutions”. In the “whereas” clause, Moore also ventures some bold claims: that unvaccinated individuals pose “risks to staff and students”; that “vaccines provide the best protection against COVID-19“; and that the supposed protection from infection at post-secondary institutions also protects “other community members by reducing the risk of disease transmission during an outbreak”.
On this now largely discredited basis, the CMOH ordered institutions to create a policy that requires anyone who attends campus to comply with one of three options: (a) provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19; (b) obtain a medical exemption from vaccination; or (c) complete an educational session “about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination prior to declining vaccination for any reason other than a medical reason”. Individuals falling under option (b) or (c) would have to submit to regular antigen testing and provide their negative test results to access campus.
Dr. Moore’s instructions came with a puzzling caveat that allowed post-secondary institutions the discretion to exclude option (c) from their policies. So far as I am aware, not a single Ontario college or university maintained the option to decline the shots and continue accessing their campus using antigen testing after the end of a transition period in the middle of the fall semester. At that point, unvaccinated contract lecturers and those who declined to declare their personal medical status lost their teaching contracts and others were put on unpaid leaves. Non-compliant students started to receive threats of being de-enrolled from in-person, and in some cases online, classes, and tenure-track faculty who did not secure a leave or other work-around were suspended at the start of January 2022.
These existential consequences were based on the wording of each individual policy. For example, Ryerson University’s COVID-19 vaccination policy threatens: “Any student who is found to be in violation of this Policy may be subject to outcomes and sanctions under the Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct.” And furthermore, “any employee who is found to be in violation of this Policy may be subject to remedial action, up to and including termination of employment for cause, in accordance with the applicable collective agreement, if any.”
Needless to say that most collective agreements for post-secondary educators do not speak about vaccination. Moreover, the threshold for discipline and dismissal of tenured faculty members is very high: “demonstrable persistent failure to
fulfill” their professional obligations, and “continuing incompetence, or serious and persistent neglect of obligations”, respectively (Ryerson Faculty Association, Collective Agreement 2020-2023, Article 20). However, the response of faculty and staff unions across the province to unpaid leaves and terminations were quite inconsistent, often appearing to depend on the personal opinion (or extent of COVID-19 fear) of union executives.
While many union locals did not pursue written protections and took until December/January to clearly take the position that nobody should loose their job over declining the jab, the national umbrella organizations for tenure-track faculty and for contract lecturers at universities had indeed proposed policy templates with strong worker protections. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) posted a “Template Mandatory Vaccination Policy” dated 18 August 2021 that stipulates (highlighting by this author):
For those [academic staff association] Members unable to be vaccinated for reasons covered by the [provincial human rights act] or who otherwise choose not to be vaccinated, exemptions from vaccination will be made on the following basis, at the Member’s choice:
a. To be on [name of institution] campus, those without proof of vaccination must be tested twice per week. COVID-19 testing will be conducted in accordance with Appendix A; or
b. Unvaccinated members will be permitted to deliver their courses, meet with students and otherwise fulfil their employment obligations remotely. The parties agree that this may require a workload alteration.
Even more compellingly, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) suggested “Language [to be] negotiated by CUPE Representatives and Locals” as early 22 April 2021 on a page that is still live at the time of writing, and includes the following recommendations:
The right to refuse the vaccine and its potential consequences.
The employer’s responsibilities, a clear process, and what occurs should a member refuse the vaccine. At minimum, the right to return to the workplace when safe to do so must be protected.
Protections for those who refuse the vaccine based on personal choice, including redeployment, access to leave, and protections against job loss.
On the same page, under “Consequences of members’ right to refuse” several worker rights are reiterated and further detailed, while unpaid leave is presented as the last resort after all other reasonable accommodations are exhausted:
Language should ensure that members who refuse vaccination will have their jobs protected.
Language should include the right to refuse the vaccine. It is reasonable to require the employer to find alternative work assignments; however, if the employer has exhausted all possibilities and the member is removed from the workplace, they should be able to access lieu time, vacation, and sick leave before being placed on an unpaid leave.
At the level of employment and labour law, things could not be more clear: Nobody should have lost their job or been placed on unpaid leave against their will, or even been threatened with these hostile, punitive consequences, for declining an injection with a drug—experimental, genetics-based, or otherwise—that is not linked to their work obligations.
Yet, our colleges and universities went a step further and adopted the public health challenge to stop virus transmission and reduce infection in the community as their own mission. Arguably this made them an agent of government and thus subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Along with many others, I believe I have convincingly argued in an essay in October 2021 that campus vaccine mandates are not reasonable, logical, or proportionate in restricting Canadians’ enshrined “right to life, liberty and security of the person” (Section 7) nor our mobility rights or the right to “pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province” (Section 6).
My argument was based on “the science” as it had evolved over the course of the pandemic. Even during the relatively short time frame of Ontario’s campus vaccination policies, their scientific and logical baselessness has become ever more obvious. On the day after his instructions to post-secondary institutions (see above), Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore issued a memorandum to Ontario’s 34 regional Medical Officers of Health (leaked by independent MPP Roman Baber) stating that “recent data from the Delta variant shows that when breakthrough cases occur, fully vaccinated individuals have similar levels of infectiousness as in unvaccinated cases.” Discriminating between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals on campus therefore makes no sense from a public health perspective.
Perhaps that is why the CMOH had allowed the testing option (it should have been applied to all campus users), which the institutions chose to exclude. Consequently, Moore now absolves himself from this responsibility by emphasizing that he never mandated vaccination in any workplace other than long-term care homes in a press conference on 17 February 2022. It will be interesting to see whether post-secondary institutions will face any consequences from their chosen discrimination of unvaccinated community members!
A few days earlier, Ontario Premier Doug Ford had announced the end of Ontario’s vaccine passport on March 1st. The CMOH referred to this date with respect to ending the vaccination requirement for post-secondary campus access too. But the universities won’t have any of it; instead, they continue the segregation until the end of the current winter term. In a comically short statement, COU declares:
[March 11, 2022] – “In order to minimize uncertainty and disruption and to continue to support our students, staff, faculty and university communities, Ontario’s universities will maintain their COVID-19 vaccination and masking policies until at least the end of the current term.”
Meanwhile, we receive additional clarity via the University of British Columbia’s COVID-19 resources page. The UBC president requested input from three of her resident experts regarding deregistration of non-compliant students. The letter by Drs. Patrick, Otto, and Coombs promptly point to the waning efficacy of the shots against transmission, in particular in the context of the now dominant Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. Although it sounds mostly like an admission that requiring a booster from community members may not be practical, the letter emphasizes that “there is no longer a strong scientific reason to differentially treat those who were fully vaccinated months ago and those who are unvaccinated, in terms of the risks that they pose for transmitting COVID to others”.
Additionally, UBC also shared a letter received from the Chief Medical Health Officer of Vancouver Coastal Health that includes the following passage:
The letter goes as far as to state that “some of the measures in place on campus—such as ongoing mandatory rapid tests for unvaccinated students and staff, and related employment/academic sanctions—are not useful in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 on campus.” And even further, “we have no evidence that those who have not complied with UBC policies have posed any public health risk to their fellow students, faculty or staff, even during circulation of other variants.” There is more advice against punitive measures and an unreserved determination that “Universities are low-risk setting for COVID-19”.
It may be worth noting that British Columbia’s universities always kept a testing option for campus access, according to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ 2021 Campus Vaccine Index. Yet more revealing is the fact that the Province of Quebec, Canada’s trailblazer in terms of authoritarian COVID restrictions, never mandated vaccination to access classrooms on its university campuses. The COVID-19 vaccination passport was required to access “non-essential” services on campuses, such as cafeterias, but post-secondary education in Quebec continued as an essential service without medical discrimination.
Without broaching the topic of natural immunity, which is certain to be high among students but continues to be completely ignored across North America, or the known safety issues with the mRNA injections, which significantly affect nearly one half of our campus populations (i.e. young men), or the plight of non-compliant staff members among the institutions’ administrative and facilities services, it is becoming clear as day that vaccine mandates have run their course, if they ever had a raison d’être. All COVID-19 policies in higher education ought to be revoked immediately and never return.
We are now told that we need to learn to live with SARS-CoV-2. But when and why did we forget how to live with coronaviruses to begin with? Our institutions of higher education have erred too far on the side of caution—misplaced caution at that. Instead of striving to be unified, virus-free environments, they need to refocus on being safe and inclusive spaces for healthy debate of diverse views and values. An individual medical decision must never again be made a prerequisite to participating in post-secondary education.
Dr. Claus Rinner is a tenured fulltime Professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario. He has written about the pandemic since March 2020; his blog posts appeared in the three volumes of the Coronoia series. Dr. Rinner also coordinates Canadian Academics for Covid Ethics. In December 2021, in conjunction with the university’s COVID-19 policy, he received notice that he would be placed on unpaid leave as of 7 January 2022 and dismissed as of today, 18 March 2022. He went through several weeks without update on his status before an accommodation was granted in early February.