Editorial: The university must commit to equity as it responds to COVID-19

Measures that protect student housing, financial, and accessibility needs must follow cancellation of in-person classes
The university has moved instruction online as a part of measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. MASHAL KHAN/THE VARSITY
The university has moved instruction online as a part of measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. MASHAL KHAN/THE VARSITY

Universities across North America have cancelled in-person classes and shifted course instruction to online platforms in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. U of T has followed this trend for undergraduate and research-stream graduate  courses across all three campuses, along with some professional programs.

We support U of T’s ongoing efforts to take the financial, social, and personal ramifications of COVID-19 into consideration. Recent emails from the university to students have acknowledged the importance of keeping residences open and providing students with safe spaces on campus. The Faculty of Arts & Sciences has also delayed the deadline to credit/no credit and drop courses, and parts of U of T have announced that students do not need to return to campus for the examination period in April.

The Varsity is appreciative of these efforts, and encourages the administration to further these to accommodate students whose financial and housing situations have been made more vulnerable by COVID-19.

Emergency planning must remain cognizant of equity concerns

As U of T continues to implement its pandemic policy amidst growing concerns from students, faculty, and staff over COVID-19’s potential impact, The Varsity is imploring the university to further implement accommodations for international, out-of-province, and low-income students whose employment, and access to on-campus food and housing remain dependent on the university. To eliminate this access is harmful to students whose financial and familial situations prevent them from easily relocating. Furthermore, international students, who may face travel restrictions, are disproportionately affected and potentially face high financial and emotional challenges.

Additionally, students who earn income from university-based jobs are at a high risk for unemployment or lost wages in the face of a university shutdown. Thus far, the university has committed to compensating faculty and student staff for missed wages due to operational closures in the next three weeks. Employees await further information in the coming week, and The Varsity encourages the university to follow through on financially supporting employees for all lost wages, including shift work.

Students experiencing homelessness who rely on the university for access to basic provisions and access to safe spaces will also likely be without resources, as gyms close and libraries enact limited hours. Furthermore, technology, including wi-fi, will not be easily accessible to all students as classes move toward an online platform. This is another aspect of contingency planning that must be understood and mediated by the administration.

Students with disabilities must also be considered in pandemic planning, particularly in regards to ways in which accessibility may become limited in the coming weeks. The onus is on Accessibility Services and the university community in general to ensure that students who require accommodation receive it, and are not left behind in the panic of this pandemic.

Indigenous students are additionally vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. Self-isolating and relocation may be difficult for all those who reside in Indigenous communities, many of whom are subject to precarious living conditions that stem from ongoing colonialism, in which U of T also plays a role. As Karl Nerenberg wrote in Rabble, Indigenous groups must be considered in government and institutional pandemic planning. Indigenous students who would need to return home as a result of any potential campus closures must be additionally supported by U of T. The Varsity asks U of T to remain cognizant of the specific needs of Indigenous students in this time of crisis.

While the university has not closed any of its campuses, the possibility remains as more and more facilities are shut down each day. The Varsity hopes to highlight some of the potential concerns surrounding campus closure.

Concerns surrounding campus closure

As of the fall of 2017, the university employs 21,788 faculty and staff, not accounting for research fellows and teaching assistants. University planning must continue to consider these employees’ reliance on U of T for income, health and dental benefits, and, in some cases, food and housing.

In the case of campus closure, reimbursement of academic and residential fees are necessary, and financial aid must be robust in its support of students and staff.

U of T’s cancellation of in-person classes is neither extreme nor unexpected. A reduction of large gatherings of people is a basic measure for quelling the spread of COVID-19. However, the continued operations of all three campuses means that staff will necessarily be on campus and required to work.

The Varsity understands how maintaining campus operations will allow vulnerable persons to continue to access necessary campus spaces.

The university’s decision to close gyms and child care centres, and limit library hours will potentially hinder the most vulnerable of our community from accessing these spaces and services. Residences remain operational, but it is unclear how methods of self-isolation will be put in effect in these spaces where students and staff are in such close physical proximity.

Non-contract operational staff, some of whom are paid by the university through hours worked will still need to choose between potentially losing their source of income or exposing themselves to contaminated spaces.

Students abroad, some of whom are left in confusion after being abruptly pulled from their placements, face unique challenges regarding housing, travel, and academic penalties. The university must do all that it can to ensure that students receive adequate support during this time. Students who have completed the majority of their academic exchanges should not lose academic credit. These students are already caught in the chaos of last-minute housing and travel arrangements, and The Varsity encourages the university to recognize these credits as legitimate

Furthermore, the university must provide instructional staff with the appropriate training to ensure that academic instruction does not suffer in an online format. Instructors may not be prepared for online or alternative instruction, and clear coordination between faculties and administration will allow instructors to access administrative support regarding any issues that may arise.

While some instructors have prepared online instructional methods, the rapid transition will surely pose problems. In this moment, The Varsity encourages compassion and understanding for both students and faculty as we all adjust to this new online platform.

Moving forward

These measures have shown that accommodation is not only possible, but that the university is willing to do so in the case of emergency. While response in a time of crisis is crucial, we question why so many of these accommodations were not accessible in the first place.

Students who require accommodation in lectures have thus far not all been given the option to access their lecture materials through digital platforms. Online teaching is a skill that, if professors had developed it over time, would have proven to make this transition much smoother in times of crisis. This crisis has shown that these accommodations can and should be made — permanently.

Furthermore, the university’s response shows that accommodating for students with medical issues is possible, and that verification of medical illness or injury notes are an expendable cost — the university is able to do without this measure. The Varsity encourages U of T to consider permanently suspending its doctor’s note requirements in favour of self-reported illness forms, even after COVID-19 preventative measures cease.

Students and community members should practice standard hygiene measures, limit travel, and refrain from unnecessary panic. If you do show symptoms, please follow the advice of medical professionals to keep both yourself and others safe in this time of crisis.

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

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