A large Ontario university will require students living in residence to be vaccinated against COVID-19 come September, administrators announced Thursday.
Western University is asking students to get their first shot before arriving on campus, but said in a statement that they will have 14 days after moving into residence to make an appointment.
"We want our community to be safe and healthy this fall, as we return to the on-campus experiences we all love," Western President Alan Shepard said in a news release. "Ensuring our students in residence are vaccinated will go a long way toward making this happen."
The measure is contingent on the supply of vaccine, the London, Ont., school said, and the rules could change based on evolving provincial regulations.
But as it stands, incoming student Michael Hegge said he's glad to hear about the university's plan.
The 17-year-old from Burlington, Ont., said he's planning on living in residence when he starts studying music at Western in September, and knowing the policy is in place is comforting.
"I think it's the right decision made by the school because It feels like we're kind of on the tail end of this whole pandemic," Hegge said in a phone interview Thursday. "...It's almost, like, people's responsibility to go and get vaccinated, because it's to protect everyone."
He said he'd also support the school mandating that students get vaccinated in order to attend class -- something it has yet to make a decision on.
But Hegge, who's already been vaccinated because he works at a fast food joint, said he's not all that concerned about vaccine uptake among his peers.
"Everyone wants to go and hang out with their friends and stuff, so they want to get vaccinated," he said. "So I haven't been worried too much about it."
Hegge's reaction has, so far, been fairly typical, the school said.
"What this strategy and decision is doing is it's actually creating some peace of mind, is what we're hearing from parents," said Chris Alleyne, the university's associate vice-president of housing and ancillary services.
"It's one less thing they're having to worry about as they send their student away to a new environment."
Alleyne said that as far as he knows, Western is the first Canadian school to make such a mandate.
"And I hope we're not the last," he said. "I've been receiving some questions from some colleagues at other institutions, so I know that this is causing some discussion and contemplation."
The school has roughly 5,600 residence spots in a typical year, but Alleyne said he expects it will once again reduce capacity to some extent in order to allow for distancing.
Western said that students who can't get vaccinated for medical reasons, or for reasons protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code, can seek an exemption.
It said it will operate an on-campus vaccination clinic over the summer to offer first and second doses for students, staff and faculty.
The local medical officer of health said he's on board with the measure.
"The Middlesex-London Health Unit ... strongly supports all efforts to increase the uptake of COVID-19 vaccination, particularly in congregate living settings such as post-secondary residences," Dr. Chris Mackie said in a letter to Shepard.
"Ensuring a high amount of vaccine coverage in all communities will be critical to ensuring an ongoing decline in cases and ending the pandemic."
He pointed to Ontario's Immunization of School Pupils Act as providing a blueprint for a mandatory vaccine policy, which also lays out the necessary exemptions.
Some universities across Canada have indicated they won't require so-called vaccine passports in order for students to attend class.
The University of British Columbia, University of Alberta and McGill University have all said that at this point, they don't plan on requiring proof of vaccination.
A spokesman for Ontario's minister of colleges and universities noted that schools in the province are their own "autonomous legal entities" and are responsible for crafting their own policies.
"We will continue to work with the Ministry of Health, chief medical officer of health and public health experts as we consult with our post-secondary institutions regarding campus reopening plans," Scott Clark said in an email.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press