Op-ed: The university needs to prioritize the well-being of students by listening to them

The UTSU is working to fill in gaps in the university’s policies

The miscommunication and dissonance created by U of T President Meric Gertler and Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr’s emails regarding the cancellation of in-person classes as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19 leaves students in a position of asking questions and receiving no answers. Regehr’s email noted that classes would resume as normal despite the cancellation of discretionary events.

While the president’s email succeeded in announcing that classes will be moved online — which was in line with the requests being made by students — it failed to mention any tangible plans for final examinations or additional supports for international and out-of-province students.

Individual branches of the university, in particular the Faculty of Arts & Science, have taken progressive steps in supporting students and communicating with us in the days since the initial announcement, but there is still a great lack of uniformity in the university’s response to COVID-19 across all faculties and divisions. Perhaps most disheartening was the lack of reference to any student voice in the reasons cited for this decision.

The voices of students, whether they be communicated over social media, emails to professors and departments, or a change.org petition that received over 19,000 signatures, are often ignored in regard to incredibly consequential decisions being made on behalf of our community. This is sadly what we have come to expect at this university. This approach makes it difficult for students to feel valued as members of the community. There seems to be an attitude of ‘get with the program or get out,’ but it’s only applied to students; we are not afforded the same luxury as our ivory tower-based colleagues.

Students care deeply about our education. We work hard to excel in our classes and have chosen to invest our efforts and resources in the University of Toronto, usually over other universities, to help us prepare for our future careers. As part of that choice, we expect the university to take our needs into consideration when making decisions that affect our studies, even when those decisions are the result of external forces over which the university has no control.

There is a long list of issues posed by the recent decisions made by the University of Toronto administration. But the underlying issue is that students are worried the university is not considering our real circumstances and concerns. We need to ensure that we are proactive in regard to the final examination season, especially in creating an accessible online platform.

There is little to no information about how final assignments will be graded. Ask any student in life sciences; next week was packed to the brim with term tests that will now have to be inevitably postponed as a result of the university’s announcement. Residence buildings are staying open and remaining operational, but students are simultaneously being advised to return home if they can. How should students interpret these seemingly contradictory approaches?

I am not suggesting that these issues are the fault of the university, but rather that an announcement should have been accompanied with a concrete plan for the programming and services that so many of us are dependent on.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has been working, based off of the recommendations and concerns we have received from students, to create solutions for the university to consider. The complete shift to online exams could pose a serious accessibility concern for students, and we believe that greater academic leniency is necessary to ensure that students are supported during this time. For instance, the Faculty of Arts & Sciences’ decision to extend the credit/no credit deadline was a step in the right direction, as it gives students time to consider what these changes mean for them. Every professor and instructor needs to be in constant communication with their students. The switch to an online course may take time, but students have anything but that.

The university — Simcoe Hall, faculties, departments, colleges, residence buildings — needs to maintain consistent and transparent communication with its students. Our university is notably decentralized, but we need to create a solution that is tailored to that decentralization and is nuanced to the extent that it meets the specific needs of students.

The UTSU is taking all steps possible to be a leader in the response to COVID-19, especially with consideration to the health and wellness of our employees and the students who depend most on our services. We have taken the necessary steps to move our operations online, and in doing so have guaranteed that all of our employees will still be paid. All in-person services such as Help Desk, UTSU’s Got You, the Tax Clinic, and town halls will be moved online or postponed until further notice to ensure the well-being of the staff that are at the helm of operating these programs. We are also exploring options to strengthen our food bank so that it will be better equipped to match the needs that could be presented by COVID-19.

We are looking to host the food bank out of the UTSU Building at 12 Hart House Circle, and we would like to predominantly offer non-perishable food items and toiletries. Lastly, we are committed to absorbing the costs of any deposits made by clubs that had to cancel their events due to the recent announcements made by the University of Toronto.

The University of Toronto has the opportunity to be a leader in the response to COVID-19 at postsecondary institutions. If the university places students in a position to have our voices heard with regard to the incoming changes to the final examination period and the remainder of the semester, our lived experiences will only serve to inform and strengthen the university’s response to COVID-19. We are the ones whose personal and academic lives are hanging in the balance, and the university cannot expect to call the shots about a student experience that they don’t understand without us in the room.

Joshua Bowman is a fifth-year Indigenous Studies and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College and current President of the UTSU.

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