Editorial: In light of COVID-19, giving students a universal pass is the only way forward

Academic accommodations have been uneven and inequitable thus far
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

U of T’s transition to online learning has been rocky, at best. Two weeks of online learning have yielded uneven results, with discrepancies across and within campuses and faculties.

The university’s pandemic planning was sorely lacking. Despite praise from department members, The Varsity recognizes that U of T has delayed adequately preparing students and faculty for changes in instruction, and notes that multiple universities across Ontario maintain robust emergency pandemic plans, something that U of T is sorely lacking. 

Consequently, the U of T community is still struggling to find its footing amidst the cancellation of in-person classes, campus closures, and transition to online learning — not to mention a host of other financial, health, and housing inequities that students and staff may be personally experiencing.

Students and faculty have been stepping up for the community. A prime example is the Toronto Student COVID-19 Team, which aims to alleviate some of the stress faced by frontline health care workers during this crisis. 

Furthermore, Faculty of Arts & Sciences Dean Melanie Woodin has been regularly updating students in creative and inspiring ways, using social media to boost student morale through messages of empathy and hope. Woodin sets a strong example for her colleagues.

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[Transcript at end of caption] . To end the week, I promised to deliver something a little different and lighter. I will say I had a lot of fun putting this TikTok together for you, as did my kids who planned and produced it. It may be the only TikTok I ever do and I hope it brings a smile to your face. . Warm regards, Dean Melanie Woodin . Transcript: . [Music: Buttercup by Jack Stauber] . SCENE 1 . [Text on screen – Study Guide – Welcome U of T ArtSci Students!] . Camera position is outside a house. The camera moves towards the door of the house and the door opens. . Dean Melanie Woodin opens the door. She is smiling and wearing a grey sweater with the U of T logo and blue jeans. . SCENE 2 . Dean Melanie Woodin is standing in front of a red wall. She is wearing a dress. She spins while text appears on the screen. While spinning, her outfit changes. She is now wearing a white sweater and blue jeans. . [Text on screen – Step one: Get into cozy clothes!] . SCENE 3 . [Text on screen – Step two: Get study snacks!] . Dean Melanie Woodin is in a kitchen. She opens the fridge and takes out a bag of baby carrots. . SCENE 4 . Dean Melanie Woodin is sitting on a chair with a laptop and the bag of baby carrots. She looks at the camera smiling. . [Text on screen – Step three: Get to work!] . SCENE 5 . [Text on screen – Good luck students!] . Dean Melanie Woodin is in a foyer. She opens the door and waves at the camera.

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The Varsity commends these students and faculty for taking on these responsibilities, and furthermore encourages U of T to look to these actions as examples of what can be done to alleviate the burdens that are being placed upon students and staff during this time. 

While the university’s efforts have largely fallen in line with that of other postsecondary institutions across North America, The Varsity believes that it can and should do better. We must stand for students, faculty, and staff, and make a renewed commitment toward the health and safety of our community. To move forward, we must first revisit the university’s shortcomings.

COVID-19 case response was the first misstep

The Varsity’s editorial board members would like to express our disappointment toward the university’s response to the first confirmed COVID-19 case on campus. It seems that optics were put over the consideration of health and safety. 

While medical confidentiality should absolutely be respected, especially during times of high anxiety and paranoia, the various parts of university administration made missteps concerning when it chose to inform students and which students they chose to inform.

Firstly, the university should not have neglected to initially inform undergraduate students of the case. Since the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies (CrimSL) administration deemed it possible that graduate students had come into contact with the person who had tested positive, there was no reason to keep undergraduate students in the dark. The decision may not have been made in malice, but it gave the appearance of a certain hierarchy of importance.

Secondly, the CrimSL’s response was to immediately resort to secrecy and suppression. Once The Varsity began making inquiries, rather than respond, its administration sent an internal email discouraging students, staff, and faculty from speaking to the media. The Varsity, as a media organization, is disappointed by the administration’s efforts to prevent anyone from speaking to the press. 

Thirdly, when U of T’s central administration did respond, it chose to deny knowledge of the case, though it would have ostensibly been made aware of it through the centre. We understand that it is a very chaotic time, and we have sympathy for everyone who is struggling to keep up with rapidly changing situations. However, the university would have been informed of the case, and furthermore had months to prepare for its possible arrival. 

Therefore, the unclear messaging and denials only worsened the situation by effectively discrediting the university’s authority on the matter. We at The Varsity do not know the internal mechanisms at play, of course, but the matter was publically handled in a way to make it seem that the university wanted to suppress any news of this case.

This was made worse by the fact that after the article was published, it took six days before the centre sent a vaguely worded email to undergraduate criminology students which appeared to confirm the case. The centre wrote that there was “a very low risk that that undergraduate students in our program were exposed to anyone at CrimSL who tested positive for COVID-19.”

If the risk on campus was serious enough to warn CrimSL faculty, graduate students, and staff to be alert if they had visited certain areas, it is unclear to us why this information was expressly kept from the public.

This irresponsible reaction undermines student trust at a dangerous time, given the severity of the circumstances. All students and staff at the university should have been notified, given the shared nature of campus spaces. CrimSL graduate students and staff were notified on March 15, just two days after the cancellation of in-person classes was announced.

The central university administration should have notified the wider community, and The Varsity urges U of T to do so immediately.

Pass or panic

The Varsity recognizes the efforts of the administration to continue offering regular accessibility services, including one-on-one appointments, peer note-taking, and accommodations for tests and assignments. An effort to keep services as close to ‘normal’ as possible, however, is not sufficient for the situation at hand. 

The pandemic has created higher levels of stress for almost everyone, and the university should be prepared to offer support to a higher number of students who may be dealing with new or worsening mental health conditions as a result.

Students and staff with limited access to wi-fi and technology are unable to maintain the same level of communication as their peers. The Varsity hopes that the university addresses these concerns as soon as possible. Libraries, both on- and off-campus, are closed, and community members are left with no access to digital resources in the case of internet or other technological difficulties.

In addition, out-of-province and international students have had to deal with the stress of moving, new times zones, and growing anxieties over displacement, on top of keeping up with their school work. The university’s decentralized response puts them at a disadvantage. 

In light of the decision to continue academic evaluations until the end of the term, and the inconsistent levels of support depending on campus, program, and professor, the university should take more initiative to support students who are now working in a vastly different capacity than they were a few weeks ago — while still facing the relatively similar academic expectations.

The university’s failure to provide students and faculty with a transition period has been harmful, with many professors failing to adapt to online systems. While some took responsibility for these potential changes early on in the year, it’s irresponsible for the university to expect professors and lecturers to do so in a matter of days with little to no guidance.

Some faculties have failed to make significant adjustments to course assessments, transitioning tests into online formats within a week of the cancellation of in-person classes. Doing so is inequitable, considering the uneven distribution of emotional, financial, and academic tolls of COVID-19 measures. The fact that this has continued is an extreme oversight by the administration and an unfortunate indication of a lack of compassion and consideration by faculty members.

Furthermore, while many lecturers have stepped up to these new challenges, a concerning number of lectures have been cancelled entirely, without adequate alternative delivery methods due to an inability to adapt to the demands of online learning.

This is not the fault of our teaching staff. The Varsity would like to thank those lecturers who have adjusted to the demands of this crisis and would like to recognize the lengths that they have gone to ensure that students continue to be taught. 

Those who have decided to cancel lectures are doing so because they are understandably underprepared. The fault falls at the hands of the administration who failed to adequately plan and inform teaching staff and teaching assistants of these potential circumstances.

As a result, academic pressure remains high. Students still must pass their courses, or else face financial and academic consequences, potentially needing to repeat courses in the future.

For those hoping to enter programs or apply for graduate studies, or who are on academic probation, the credit/no credit (CR/NCR) system does not present a realistic option. Without clarification from the university, first-year students are in limbo as they need to maintain averages in order to enter into some of their desired programs.

Furthermore, students at UTM and UTSC are not being afforded the same consideration as those at UTSG, who are able to drop and CR/NCR courses after they have received their marks. 

The Varsity reminds the university of its commitment to students of all three of its campuses. 

There is no reason that UTM and UTSC should not be able to have the same extended drop date, and the continued inequitable treatment of students from satellite campuses during this pandemic is unacceptable.

For graduating students, the CR/NCR option does little to alleviate growing academic and financial pressures. For those enrolled in challenging upper-year courses, a failure to pass may require students to repeat a semester or even year of study. Graduating students are also in an increasingly precarious position as they have to enter an unstable job market.

What unites students across faculties, years of study, and campuses is the burden of academic pressure, which could be alleviated if the university chooses to put its students’ health first. Academic performance during this time is not a reflection of a students’ ability to successfully function as students.

These circumstances are novel, like the virus itself, and the extent to which we mediate growing anxieties and pressures must adequately reflect the severity of this pandemic, as it has affected every level of life, from diet to academics to housing.

A universal pass is necessary

Students across North America are petitioning colleges and universities to institute a no-fail system. While many universities have adopted some variation of the CR/NCR system, this is simply not enough.

The Varsity urges the university to consider a universal pass for all students, regardless of final grades. We believe this would be the most compassionate option for students and educators who have been thrust into this exceedingly difficult situation through no fault of their own. 

In this scenario, students would still have their exceptional work during the year reflected in their grades, but no student would have to worry about failing classes due to mitigating circumstances such as insecure housing situations, lack of reliable internet access, or stressful home environments. 

Simply offering students the option to drop a course if they do not pass will potentially force many students to spend more money re-taking courses to finish their degree. During a time when unemployment is set to rise drastically, this is unacceptable, particularly for graduating students who are certain to feel the impact of a shrinking job market.

The Varsity has already urged the university to adopt equity as a guiding force behind its implementation of preventative measures. A universal pass is the only way to ensure that students and faculty are able to focus on their physical and mental health during a time that is undeniably stressful for everyone. 

The Varsitys 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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