U of T campus groups and labour unions are pushing back against plans to reopen campus in the fall with in-person classes through a petition with over 5,000 signatures, citing concerns about the safety and equity of the administration’s COVID-19 strategy. 

In a July 14 message to the university community, President Meric Gertler expressed that health and safety is “the University’s first priority” and announced that over one third of undergraduate courses would have in-person components. Certain divisions would offer over 50 per cent of courses with an in-person section. 

The groups are claiming that the university’s plans to resume some in-person operations are at odds with other institutions’ plans and are not in the best interests of the U of T community. Other universities in the GTA, such as Ryerson University and York University, will be almost entirely online in the fall.

Health and safety concerns 

Terezia Zoric, President of the U of T Faculty Association (UTFA), expressed frustration with the university’s decision to allow discretionary in-person courses in an interview with The Varsity. In a July 28 message to her members, she wrote, “it is UTFA’s view that if implemented, this plan could jeopardize the health and safety of students, staff, faculty, librarians, and the greater U of T community.”

Consequently, the UTFA, along with other groups and labour unions on campus such as CUPE 3902 and unions representing administrative and technical workers, library workers, service workers, and Ontario Institute in Studies in Education graduate assistants, developed a petition demanding that U of T move the fall semester online.

“Until the safety of students and workers can be guaranteed, in-person learning, teaching, librarianship, and other academic work should be paused,” the petition reads. 

It claims that the university has not considered the risk of airborne transmission of the virus, though in an interview with The Varsity, Vice-Provost Faculty & Academic Life Heather Boon said that the university has “reviewed all the heating and ventilation systems in all buildings to make sure that they meet the standards that have been set by public health or exceed them.”

The petition also raises concerns about a lack of consultation with the unions, students, workers, and the workplace Joint Health and Safety Committees, and criticizes the reopening plan for neglecting the role of presymptomatic or asymptomatic transmission.

In response to a question about combating presymptomatic or asymptomatic transmission, Boon wrote in an email to The Varsity that physical distancing measures will be implemented on campus as well as plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizing stations, and improved ventilation. 

One of Zoric’s biggest concerns is that, to her knowledge, U of T does not have any contingency plans to address a potential second wave of COVID-19 during the academic year. She sees this as an essential question that must be answered before the university can move forward with in-person instruction.

“Can you imagine how disruptive and terrible it would be if people started classes in one way and then everything had to be reconfigured because people were getting sick and we had to scale back our efforts?” Zoric said. 

According to Zoric, a group of campus leaders has extended multiple consultation invitations to the administration, hoping to meaningfully and collaboratively address these issues. Instead, she claimed that the university has chosen to conduct separate consultations with each group. Amy Conwell, Chair of CUPE 3902, said that her union — which represents contract academic workers — has raised concerns, but the administration has brushed their worries aside. 

“We have been consulting with the unions and the Faculty Association for many, many weeks,” Boon said. “We are continuing to work with them and continue to talk to them about their concern.” Boon added that there will “absolutely” be a continuation of the consultations. 

Equity concerns

The petition also expressed equity concerns related to reopening. “U of T’s plan for reopening places disproportionate risk on the most precariously employed workers,” the groups wrote in the petition.

Conwell told The Varsity that some of these inequities stem from power relations embedded in the academic hierarchy. Non-tenured faculty members may hesitate to voice concerns for fear of being seen as troublemakers. Meanwhile, teaching assistants’ (TA) employment supervisors may double as their academic supervisors, increasing the pressure they might feel to take in-person teaching jobs.

Boon noted that instructors and TAs were able to choose if they wanted to teach in person, writing to The Varsity that some faculty members have chosen to teach in person for “pedagogical or practical reasons.” 

However, Conwell called these comments — which Boon also released as a statement on a City News broadcast — a “misrepresentation.” Conwell noted that while some departments have guaranteed that TAs will not have to teach in person if they do not want to, not all departments have offered the same guarantee. 

“We have asked the University to provide these guarantees for TAs (and others in similar job categories) across the board, but they have refused,” Conwell wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Zoric told The Varsity that faculty “haven’t had a fair opportunity to assess the risks involved” with in-person instruction, nor were all of them given a fair opportunity to decline it. 

Boon said that the university has been working on a “case-by-case basis” with instructors who have expressed the desire to change their course delivery method. However, the Faculty of Arts & Science will be giving instructors the opportunity to change their plans if they no longer wish to teach in-person course sections. 

“You, of course, can air your concerns, but that fails to capture the difficulty of the position that you might later be in when you’re asking this person for a recommendation letter,” Conwell said. “The university is offloading that decision-making onto these individual instructors instead of creating a systemic option that would be equitable, and fair, and safe for everyone.”

In a similar vein, instructors’ age-related risks are being addressed on a case-by-case basis that Zoric finds inefficient. “Half of my members are over the age of 50, and the risk starts to really intensify at 50,” Zoric said. 

Boon wrote in an email to The Varsity, “The University will accommodate those who may be at risk because of factors like underlying health conditions or age.”

Instead of addressing these nuances or broader underlying anxieties, Conwell told The Varsity that the senior administration has remained determined to highlight the safety precautions built into their fall strategy. 

“We… all agree that putting the health and safety of the community first is incompatible with as much in-person teaching as they currently have scheduled,” Zoric said of the coalition of groups who signed the petition. “The health and well-being of every group is connected to the health and well-being of every other group.”

Revised mask policy 

One of the petition’s points has since been resolved by the university. Boon confirmed that, in a change to the original plan, masks will be required in classrooms “out of an abundance of caution.” Boon said that more information about the mask policy expansion will be available soon.

However, Conwell expressed concerns that any lack of clarity around enforcement of the classroom mask policy would create problems for students and instructors alike in cases of noncompliance. “Are you supposed to call up the head of environmental health and safety… who’s rolling out the plans? Or do you call campus police?” Conwell asked. 

She also mentioned that masking will create new barriers to accessibility because students who are hard of hearing may need to see lips move in order to understand their peers and instructors. 

“I don’t think the university has been thoughtful enough about these varied situations that students are going to find themselves in,” Conwell said. 

— With files from Hannah Carty