On three dates across the past several weeks, severe winter weather conditions have compelled universities across southwestern Ontario to cancel classes or close campuses entirely. This is naturally expected, provided that universities prioritize the safety of their students and employees.

But what’s wrong with you, UTSG?

On January 28, UTM closed at 4:00 pm, UTSC closed at 5:00 pm, and UTSG cancelled classes at 6:00 pm. The next morning, UTM and UTSC remained closed for several hours, while UTSG re-opened.

On February 6, UTM closed yet again, UTSC cancelled classes starting at noon, and UTSG closed at 3:00 pm.

On February 12, the worst of the three cases arrived, as evidenced by a winter storm warning issued by Environment Canada. Both UTM and UTSC closed early in the morning, as did universities across Toronto and southwestern Ontario, including ones located blocks away from UTSG, like Ryerson University and OCAD University. The only exception was UTSG, which decided near noon to only cancel classes that started at or after 4:00 pm due to “worsening weather conditions” in the evening.

The point is that UTSG has consistently chosen to delay the inevitable decision to cancel classes or close campus, while its satellite campuses have exercised the prudence to make the call earlier. It has also frequently opted for the softer of the two choices, cancelling classes, unlike the other campuses.

UTSG’s anomalous behaviour has caused many students to rise up in anger on social media, and rightly so. It is unacceptable that this campus operates significantly differently from the other two, especially when they all belong to the same region being affected by severe weather conditions.

No respect for commuters

UTSG’s record is first and foremost disrespectful to commuters. By delaying the decision on whether or not to cancel classes, thousands of commuters are forced to make unsafe and messy journeys to campus, made even worse as sidewalks have not yet been shovelled or salted in the early hours of the morning. Furthermore, many have their commute times significantly lengthened due to poor road and transit conditions, especially if they are from outer suburbs like Mississauga, Oakville, or Markham.

This forces commuters to personally account for the weather in their commute time, and may nonetheless cause late arrivals to classes without any accommodations. If a commuter student decides to not go to campus at all, out of fear for their safety, then they are burdened with the responsibility to individually negotiate with and be left at the mercy of individual instructors for missed participation or tests.

The disunity of decision-making between all three campuses has the potential to negatively impact students taking courses at other U of T campuses. On February 12, while shuttle buses serving UTM students who attend UTSG classes were cancelled, they were still expected to attend.

Some commuters had also just arrived on campus when UTSG finally made the calls to cancel classes, rendering their difficult journey unnecessary. On January 28, for instance, an alert email to students indicating the 6:00 pm cancellation was sent just minutes before. Meanwhile, UTM and UTSC students were given notice hours before that their classes would be cancelled. The Varsity has learned that, unlike its satellite campuses, UTSG has no official guidelines on the timelines for making decisions about evening classes.

Commuters, along with others who may have been on campus beforehand, then have to reckon with the fact that they still have to make the unsafe commute back home, in “worsening” evening conditions. U of T must create and apply policy that reflects and accommodates commuters, the majority of its students.

No consideration for student safety on campus

None of this speaks to the additional issue of walking conditions on campus itself. On February 12, the city began salting roads at around 7:45 am, and it took around 18 hours to get main roads and sidewalks salted and shovelled. Thus, dangerous sidewalks have been a reality for students forced to walk through a large campus to get to class on time, especially during  midterm season. If the university knows that sidewalks are not safe by the time classes begin, then it should close campus to ensure that there are no accidents.

Although U of T’s decision already posed difficulties for able-bodied persons on campus, it was especially inconsiderate of students with accessibility needs, such as those who need wheelchairs or scooters for mobility and find it more difficult to navigate through the snow and ice. Clean-up crews tend to focus on sidewalks and major points of entry and, as a result, ramps can remain icy and difficult to navigate. Snowplows also pile snow back onto sidewalks and curb cuts, limiting wheelchair and scooter access.

The extreme cold and winds can also put individuals at risk of hypothermia, a condition in which the body cannot warm itself fast enough and causes body temperature to drop. Hypothermia is all the more likely if students are outside waiting for buses or walking to class.

Unfortunately, not all students made it through safely on campus, especially on February 12. One student who was rushing to get from one midterm to another slipped on unsalted black ice and sprained their knee. Their doctor subsequently prescribed them a knee brace. Another student slipped on ice hidden under snow and hit their forehead on the ground — the Health & Wellness Centre diagnosed them with a suspected concussion.

It is important to note that these are just two of several stories that were reported to The Varsity. There are many more, and they are not exclusive to students; instructors and employees at the university are equally vulnerable. UTSG’s policy has tangible consequences in the form of danger and harm to those who are forced to walk on campus, and the university must take responsibility.

Selective communication

Other members of the U of T community may not have been physically hurt, but had added stress as a result of these late or absent cancellations. One Varsity masthead member reported that, for two of the three dates of severe weather conditions, their accessibility and therapy appointments at the university were cancelled prior to any general decision from the university regarding the weather. Although the university is reluctant to cancel classes or close campus, it is not reluctant to shut down important services that students may desperately need to access.

Another masthead member had a midterm scheduled from 3:00–5:00 pm on February 12. The university cancelled all classes and midterms starting at or after 4:00 pm. However, it did not clearly indicate what would happen to midterms that started before but ended after the cancellation, leaving students uncertain.

It only clarified that midterms would go on once prompted by students, even though no justification was given after all, if it is deemed unsafe to be on campus after 4:00 pm by the university, then to hold a midterm that ends at 5:00 pm is entirely inconsistent. This was similar to February 6, when U of T closed at 3:00 pm but indicated that it would be up to instructors to decide whether or not to cancel classes that started before 3:00 pm.

When prompted by The Varsity on the subject of campus closures under severe weather conditions, U of T Spokesperson Elizabeth Church indicated that safety is a “top priority” but that “there are thousands of classes, exams, tests, labs and tutorials on each campus throughout the day. The decision to cancel classes or close a campus is always challenging.”

This seems to imply that the magnitude of operations on campus has a bearing on the kind of decision that is made. But it shouldn’t. If safety is compromised, then the decision should be made. Safety is not simply a “top” priority; it is the paramount priority. The inconvenience that may spillover to the university’s bureaucracy as a result of the cancellations should be secondary.

We need a safety-first policy

We call on Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat, who are involved in the decision-making process for cancellations and closures at UTSG, to do better for students, instructors, and employees. First of all, they should learn from UTM, UTSC, and other campuses in the region, and make decisions much earlier to show consideration for commuters and students with accessibility needs. Students should not be left to negotiate with their instructors for extensions or accommodations when their safety is compromised.

They should also do better to ensure that all cancellations are communicated effectively and widely, and that all student inquiries and confusions are preemptively answered. Given the stress that cancellations may put on bureaucracy, a simple solution is for instructors to reschedule cancelled classes to the makeup day at the end of the term, or to negotiate with their classes regarding covering missed material.

This is also an opportunity for student unions to demonstrate that they are not simply driven by “crazy Marxist nonsense” as the premier has accused. In fact, organizing and advocating for student interests with the university administration is at the core of the mandate of student unions. We call on the University of Toronto Students’ Union and other student unions at UTSG to demand a better cancellation and closure policy to ensure that students no longer face dangerous circumstances in this and future winter seasons.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].