By Angela Amato, The Canadian Press
Universities that require masks on campus are in the minority as the fall semester and the prospect of another wave of COVID-19 infections loom.
Despite the lifting of provincial and territorial mask requirements, some post-secondary institutions have decided to keep them for the safety of staff and students.
“At the moment, I think there is still risk of waves of significant illness, and caution makes sense to me,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Alberta, where masking is encouraged, but not required, in most settings.
Fourteen out of 83 universities surveyed by The Canadian Press through email, interviews and online notices say they will require students and employees to mask up in different settings on campus.
Western University in London, Ont., and an affiliated school, Huron University College, were the only ones surveyed that have vaccine mandates.
“While we can’t predict when the next wave of COVID-19 might come, we believe these measures will help us protect the in-person experience that Western is known for,” Western provost Florentine Strzelczyk said in a statement posted to the university’s website.
At Dalhousie University in Halifax, masks must be worn in classrooms and instructional spaces. They’re voluntary in all other indoor spaces such as hallways, libraries and learning commons. Dalhousie does not have a vaccine requirement.
Dalhousie Student Union was not part of the decision-making, but it fully supports the mandate, said spokesperson Janet Bryson. The Student Union Building is not an instructional space, so masking is not mandatory there.
“Masks have always been recommended, and we will continue to recommend that masks be worn in our spaces,” Bryson wrote in an email.
Ryan Simmons, a music student at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said he would prefer a mandate for vaccines over one for masks.
“It is a higher place of education, so I’d hope most people at school are smart enough to get their booster shots,” said Simmons, whose COVID-19 vaccinations are up to date.
Simmons said universities should have notifications sent to students encouraging them to get their boosters. When it comes to mask requirements, Simmons said: “I’m totally fine with whatever. As long as I get to be at school, I’m a happy guy.”
MacEwan University has announced it will continue to encourage vaccination and masks, but will not make either mandatory for the fall semester.
Cleome Wilkinson, geography student at the University of Victoria, said she’ll still be wearing a mask come September. The University of Victoria does not have a mask or vaccine mandate in place for the fall 2022 term.
“The disability community has been pretty vocal about masking in close-contact spaces and indoor spaces being something that makes their lives easier and more comfortable,” said Wilkinson. “That’s something that’s important to me.”
The University of Manitoba is maintaining its indoor mask mandate until further notice.
Dr. Mark Torchia, academic team lead at the University of Manitoba, said mask mandates are more effective than vaccinations against the Omicron variant. As COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Manitoba, Torchia said it made sense for the school with about 40,000 staff, faculty and students to require masking.
On the response from students, Torchia said: “I’ve heard from both sides, but mostly positive.”
Julie Lajoie, research associate at the University of Manitoba said she’s relieved the university is maintaining its mask mandate.
“The University of Manitoba is really following the science.”
The University of Alberta said in a statement that “high quality masks remain encouraged on U of A campuses in indoor high-traffic or high-capacity areas or when accessing public or shared transportation. In some specific instances masks will be required, such as clinical settings with Alberta Health Services masking requirements.”
Student Union president Abner Monteiro said his group did not take part in the decision-making.
“Generally, students haven’t really signalled one way or the other that they need a mask mandate to feel comfortable at university,” he said.
“What we want to see and ensure at the students’ union is that we have a preventive, proactive and planned approach from the university so that students have predictability first and foremost this year.”
Universities that offer medical training still have mask policies in clinical settings, as recommended by public health officials.
— With files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Jordan Omstead in Toronto
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.