'Our members are... relieved': Western faculty, TA unions react to COVID-19 vaccination plan

The unions representing faculty, teaching assistants, and postdoctoral associates at Western University are praising a decision by the institution to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination on campus this fall.

The university announced the move on Wednesday, saying that proof will be required from students, staff, and faculty at Western and its affiliated colleges, with exemptions provided under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Those without proof of vaccination will be required to be tested twice a week in order to be on campus, the university says.

Vaccinations will also be required for students on work and clinical placements, in music programs, and for varsity student-athletes, coaches and team staff, school officials say.

The news comes months after the university mandated that students living in residence be vaccinated, and three weeks after the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) called on Western to adopt a vaccination mandate.

“Our members are… (the) number one word, I’d have to say, is relieved,” said Nigmendra Narain, the union’s president, in an interview on Thursday. UWOFA represents roughly 1,500 faculty at Western along with 50 librarians and archivists.

“We’ve heard a lot of our members come out very clearly about what they’re facing in terms of their own family situation, taking care of elderly parents and so forth. The overwhelming majority were looking for such a policy so that they can walk into the classroom safely.”

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Narain said UWOFA members have been petitioning the university to enact a vaccination requirement over the last several weeks “emailing their deans and chairs… telling their personal stories, talking about their families and also raising concerns.”

Pressure has also been coming from members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 610. The union, which represents more than 2,000 graduate teaching assistants and postdoctoral associates at Western, joined UWOFA in its calls for a vaccination requirement.

“Our membership is feeling really good. Talk to a lot of our executives and you get a lot of ‘whoo-hoos’… They’re very excited about it because it’s something we’ve been (requesting) for weeks and we’re really glad Western is stepping up,” said PSAC Local 610 President Wes Robinson.

Meetings among union members during the pandemic have routinely come back to one topic, he says. “Come September, what policies are going to be in place to really protect us?”

“Western was early to say ‘we’re going back to in-person learning.’ There was a lot of concern, a lot of worries, and it kept being brought up over and over again, so we knew it was something we had to push Western for.”

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A survey issued to students, faculty and staff earlier this month found that nearly 90 per cent of respondents were fully vaccinated, according to the university. Of the roughly 10 per cent remaining, more than half planned to get vaccinated by September.

It’s not clear yet how Western will enforce the requirement and how those vaccinated will be asked to prove their immunization status.

“We haven’t had any communication as yet from the administration as to what this will look like. We will be working to get to know those facts, get that information,” Narain said.

“What’s important here is (that) now we are at that stage where we can start to look at what this would look like and have our input accordingly,” he added.

“Now we’ve got to work out the details and we’re going to be looking to the administration to start to put those things out.”

The Middlesex-London Health Unit and Dr. Chris Mackie, the region’s medical officer of health, have endorsed Western’s vaccination requirement, citing the high number of cases and outbreaks that involved university students during the previous school year. At least eight outbreaks were reported in Western residences between late March and mid-May, linked to nearly 200 cases.

“High vaccine uptake in Middlesex-London, including amongst post-secondary communities, will be essential to ensure a safe and healthy autumn,” Mackie wrote in a letter Monday to Western president Alan Shepard.

Other post-secondary institutions in Ontario have unveiled similar vaccination plans, including the University of Toronto, Ontario Tech University and Seneca College. The Council of Ontario Universities and Colleges has also been urging Queen’s Park to mandate vaccination of post-secondary students, faculty and staff province-wide.

The calls come amid growing concerns over more contagious COVID-19 variants, including the Delta variant, which accounted for a majority of cases seen in Ontario through the month of July.

Western says its vaccination and testing centre remains open to all university community members.

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The issue of mandatory vaccinations has also been playing out in the province’s health-care sector.

Multiple organizations, including the Ontario Medical Association, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, and the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, have called on the province to mandate vaccines for health-care workers.

The province has staunchly opposed both mandatory vaccinations for health-care workers and requiring a vaccine certification system for places such as bars and gyms, as seen in other jurisdictions.

“There’s a mixture of views on that particular subject and we are not mandating vaccines for anyone, although we strongly encourage people to take the vaccine,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday after an announcement in Collingwood, Ont.

At the federal level, the Trudeau government announced Wednesday that Canada would soon get a COVID-19 vaccine passport for international travel.

— With files from The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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