Fall classes begin next week—and, for the first time since March 2020, most classes are once again being held in-person. Professors Christopher Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching & Academic Programs), and Fabrice Labeau, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), spoke with the Reporter about the planning behind the long-awaited return to McGill’s campuses.
We know that vaccination is the best way to fight the spread of COVID-19. Can we start by talking about the vaccination rate for the McGill community?
Fabrice Labeau: We’re starting from a very good point here. As of today’s count [Aug. 27] by the Quebec government, 75.8 per cent of Quebecers have received at least one dose. It’s even better news for our student population: Almost a month ago, the Ministry of Higher Education reported that 86.6 per cent of university students living in Quebec had received one dose, and 68.5 per cent had received two doses.
The other very positive statistics we have are from the Santé publique kiosk at the Trudeau airport here in Montreal. The kiosk welcomes incoming international students, and gives them directions about how to register their vaccine coverage with Quebec, advises whether they need to take one or two more doses, explains how to book an appointment, etc. We’re seeing that 80 per cent of the international students at the kiosks are double vaccinated. That reassures us that there is no significant difference between the students who are not in Quebec yet, and the students who have been counted through the Quebec vaccination campaign.
Chris Buddle: We know we’re not going to reach 100 per cent. Even with a strong vaccine mandate, we know that there is still around 5 per cent of people who will actually have an exemption, so there would always be some unvaccinated people on campus. In one of the “Ask an Expert” videos that we have on YouTube, Dr. Don Sheppard talks about this notion of having to co-exist with the virus. That’s the reality: there is no possibility of 100 per cent safety, anywhere, anytime.
But, like every community, we’re trying to get our vaccination numbers as high as possible.
What is the University doing to grow those numbers?
CB: Applying the Quebec vaccine passport is going to be the largest tactic. We’re also deploying a vaccination clinic on campus on Sept. 3. As people walk onto campus next week, we will be continuing our campaign for vaccination, distributing fliers and reminding them to get vaccinated.
FL: We also have specific campaigns going on with our international students. Because of course, they’re in a bit of a different situation. Some of them are coming into the country with no real understanding of how the vaccination campaign works in Quebec. So we’re trying to get them pointers on how to get their vaccination status recognized, or at least evaluated quickly so they know whether or not they need one additional dose of a vaccine, for instance, to get to what is considered full immunization in Quebec, and which will give them access to a vaccine passport.
The passport comes into effect on Sept. 1. In a message to the McGill community, Prof. Labeau said that “Only people who are fully vaccinated will be able to access the full range of activities at McGill.” Can you talk a bit more about how that will work?
CB: We’re working through the details. The operationalizing has to be done carefully and within our own context. But the general framework will be to use the app that the government talked about earlier this week.
FL: We’re exploring whether there are ways for individuals to not have to show their vaccine passport every time they want to walk into [the same] place, and whether we can find any system that will allow individuals to have a semi-permanent way of identifying as having a vaccine passport. We’re thinking about ideas like wristbands, stickers, all sorts of stuff—but we’ll have to figure out whether it’s feasible from an operational perspective, and of course whether it’s legal to do so in the legal framework context that we’ll have from the government in the next few days.
CB: It’s all really going to be context dependent. A place like Athletics, which has a front desk entrance, would be different than some other activities that have a different kind of flow to them. So that’s why we’re trying to look at the suite of different activities, and then understand those contexts and how we can apply the best system.
What will the University do if the public health situation gets worse?
CB: We’ll continue to follow the directives from the government and the Ministry of Education, who are informed by public health, and especially our regional public health authorities who have an eye on the Montreal situation.
We’ve seen from our government a deep commitment to education. There is a strong commitment to remaining in-person with our teaching and our research activities. However, if we have to change to a different scenario, we have contingency plans.
FL: The government has made it very clear that education is one of these essential services to be delivered in-person. We’ll adapt our measures according to what happens in Montreal, the province and in the country. Our first back-up plan is to revert to having in-person courses with one-meter distancing everywhere in the University, as opposed to everywhere except in classrooms. The next thing we could do is go back to a full two-meter-distancing operation, which would look very similar to what we had in Winter semester last year, where we had some in-person activities, but the numbers would decrease significantly.
Would the University consider going back to all online, like it did last year?
FL: That would be the backup of a backup, and definitely not our next step. We’re still definitely trying to remain as much as possible in-person. And we know that this is in line with the provincial government’s idea that we’re an essential in-person activity. And so we expect that before we could get to going completely online, there would be a lot of other things happening in this province in terms of the other things being closed. So we’re really talking about a very extreme case here. We’re not talking about something that is very likely.
CB: We have continually worked with faculties to highlight the importance of looking at ways to encourage flexibility and how things are done in terms of the teaching and learning context. And some professors, for example, found a lot of value in doing some kinds of remote assessment, while others prefer an in-person assessment. So we’ve really tried to encourage aspects that are pedagogically driven, where perhaps some remote aspects of a course could continue. By having already built in some of that flexibility, if we do have to go to a situation where there’s more online activities, many instructors will have already thought through some of these options.
But my general sense is the probability of maintaining our in-person teaching and learning activities is high for the Fall term. That’s why we’re building in the layers of protection in the approach around safety, and in our approach on the University campuses: So that we can maintain the [in-person] teaching and research activities all through the Fall term.
How much autonomy does the University have in implementing measures like mandatory masks or vaccination mandates?
FB: The University has some autonomy in fulfilling our mission, but we’re bound by a legal framework. I think the framework was described best in the message that the Provost sent to the whole community. I’ll paraphrase here, but it’s the notion that a vaccination is a medical procedure, and individuals in Quebec have the fundamental right to choose whether to be subject to a medical procedure, even if it’s recommended. This is not, of course, a right that is absolute—but to go above and beyond that right requires that the situation is such that it is absolutely necessary to do so. And so this is something that we may be able to do if the pandemic situation becomes much worse, and we had no way of operating without such a vaccine mandate. In the current situation—with the very high vaccination rates amongst our student population, and the kinds of case counts that we’re seeing, despite the fourth wave coming to us—it’s simply not enough to warrant that we infringe on this basic right.
How has the University been talking to students about the transition back to in-person learning?
CB: It’s important to hear student perspectives. One thing we’ve been doing since Spring of 2020, we’ve been holding what we’re calling Student Leaders Town Halls, where we invite student executives from faculty student associations, as well as SSMU, PGSS, etc. to get feedback and to get updates from what they’re hearing, and to provide updates of the different things that we’re doing with respect to planning and implementing the term.
FL: I regularly meet with the student societies as well. Generally, we’re trying to make sure that we’re communicating on several fronts: Town Halls, sending regular email messages to the community, connecting directly with stakeholders.
CB: Whenever we do get feedback from students, we certainly do our best to reply directly whenever we can. We’re here, we’re listening, we’re trying to adapt and continue to communicate.
How will the University support students’ mental health and well-being during the semester?
FL: This is going to be done through the Wellness Hub staff. We’re also going to be publicizing the keep.meSAFE app, which offers 24/7 support for students for when the Wellness Hub is not open. There are also Local Wellness Advisors deployed to faculties and specific areas of the Universities, including residences.
CB: I’d like to add that students have generally responded very positively to having both virtual and in-person appointments for mental health. Having different options in terms of accessing those services has been really beneficial, and it’s allowed some increased capacity as well because of the opportunities of the online formats for appointments.
What accommodations are there for students or staff who are uncomfortable returning to in-person activities?
CB: It’s very context dependent. Some individuals have medical reasons why they can’t be on campus. Immunocompromised individuals are typically the type of individuals for whom we’re going to be looking at accommodations, because it is more complicated for them to be on campus.
If a student has a positive COVID test, which means they can’t come to campus, they can fill out the accommodation form on Minerva, then the Dean of Students will work with the student’s Faculty to try to come up with the appropriate accommodation plan.
As for people not feeling safe in terms of coming to campus, I don’t want to diminish how people are feeling. A lot of people are feeling anxious and scared. This is why we put in place the layers of protection that we have in terms of the campus environment—so people can feel good about coming to campus for classes and work. We’re hoping that the campus environment will be reflective of the safety measures we put in place so people will feel good about coming here.
How will the University enforce the safety directives, like wearing masks indoors and maintaining a certain distance? Will there be consequences for not following directives?
CB: It’s important to remember that, although we’ve had far fewer people on our campuses during the past year, our campuses haven’t been empty. We’ve had students and instructors in our Teaching Hubs and Study Hubs. Some students lived in residence last year. There has been some in-person research. Some staff continued to work on campus. Among the in-person activity that has been possible, we’ve had a very high degree of safety compliance in general among our entire community. We had some COVID cases within the residence hall communities last year, but in the teaching and learning context, and in research, we didn’t. So we’re starting from a good place.
Looking ahead, we want to view all of this through the lens of education. It’s going to be natural for someone to make an innocent mistake and forget to bring a mask, or to forget to follow certain guidelines. In most cases, there will be a natural teaching opportunity, whether it’s peer-to-peer, whether it’s an instructor in a class, whether it’s just seeing someone on campus—these are all opportunities for a nice conversation to say, “Hey, don’t forget about…” There will also be some enhanced patrols around campus, done by our Security Services team. Again, the patrols are not enforcement-oriented, but education-oriented—just a presence to remind people of some of the general health protocols.
Of course, there are possible consequences if there are ongoing issues and refusal to follow our protocols. For students, for example, that’s through the Code of Student Conduct and disciplinary procedures. An instructor always has the right to ask a student to leave if they’re not abiding by the regulations. We honestly hope those don’t have to be used in most cases. We believe people will be compliant.
There are many resources available to support students, faculty, and staff during the transition back to in-person activities. Keep up to date on the latest developments through the University’s COVID-19 website.