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Opinion: UTSG’s new weather cancellation policy is a step in the right direction

Administration must always prioritize student voices, safety
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Students criticized UTSG over their handling of class cancellations last winter.SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
Students criticized UTSG over their handling of class cancellations last winter.SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

This November has seen the return of heavy snow and ice — which means all eyes are on the U of T administration’s decisions surrounding campus closures. However, recent updates to its weather cancellation policy — following significant backlash for UTSG’s decisions not to close campus in light of heavy weather last year — provide hope on this matter.

The errors of the past

In the past, UTSG has been exceptionally late in its closure announcements due to severe winter weather. Most egregiously, on January 28, UTSG cancelled classes starting at 6:00 pm, notifying students just minutes before, long after the Environment Canada warning.

At the time, I was a student living on residence. When the announcement came, I was already standing outside of my class, confused. I had a 10-minute walk. If you had a two-hour transit ride — as is the case for many students — you would have already completed your dangerous commute by the time you heard that you didn’t need to be there, and would then need to make that same trek back home. 

This led to vocal criticism from students over the way that cancellations were handled. Afterward, Regehr said that Robarts Library would remain open around-the-clock, even during winter storms, and that students could always stay there overnight if they found themselves stranded on campus. Many students further criticized this solution as absurd. Cancelling classes is a much better course of action than students sleeping overnight in Robarts. 

On February 12, the Toronto District School Board closed for the first time since 2011, and Ryerson University, York University, UTM, and UTSC all closed first thing in the morning, while UTSG stayed open until 4:00 pm.

This was criticized by students as other downtown schools declared travel unsafe, while UTSG seemed to either not realize or not care about the worsening conditions. Instead, the administration only announced around noon that classes would be cancelled later that afternoon, while many students still needed to get to campus for earlier classes, putting their safety at risk.

Students should not need to worry about their safety trying to get to class. Last year a student was rear ended while driving and another fell, potentially sustaining a concussion. Both students were on their way to and from class, with one commenting on how they felt they needed to choose between their safety and attendance, a decision that students should never need to make.

The last academic year’s experiences, in sum, raised questions about the devaluation of student voices and experiences by UTSG’s administration.

A step in the right direction

But recent changes to the procedure concerning the cancellation of classes — sent out by Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat    are a step in the right direction. The changes, which were announced on October 31, signal a positive adjustment to the way the administration is responding to student concerns regarding the university’s lack of timely closure during extreme weather.

The first heading of the announcement is titled “We heard your concerns,” and unlike previous responses from the administration, I actually feel heard. Student safety should always come first, and this is a good first step in recognizing that.

This year, the university plans to have more coordination with other schools and transit systems regarding closures and to broadcast cancellations on social media, making them more accessible to students.

One positive change is monitoring the GO Train service and local and regional highways for closures and delays, which will be beneficial for many students commuting from all throughout the GTA.

All that being said, there is still room for improvement. In the announcement, there was no reference to what they would do to ensure that cancellations are announced in a timely fashion.

In an email to The Varsity, university spokesperson Elizabeth Church clarified that the administration will try to make sure that cancellations are announced by 6:30 am this year because it recognizes that many students commute great distances.

Church also wrote, “It’s important that we hear from our students on this and other areas where we are working to update our policies and practices.”

I hope that the recent update marks a new beginning in how administration treats concerns brought forward by students. As the winter begins, we can see if it follows through on the promises it has made in this statement. Moving forward, we need an administration that always listens and that takes our concerns seriously.

Laura Peberdy is a second-year Global Health student at Victoria College.