As the fall semester looms, the University of Toronto’s decision to include some in-person activities in its reopening plan has received heavy criticism from various stakeholders.

U of T community members, from labour unions to public health experts, have raised concerns about the inadequacy of workplace guidelines, as well as questioned the university’s ability to enforce them, and the lack of a universal online learning approach that could guarantee safety this fall.

Concerns about guidelines, campus density

A petition from six labour unions at the university, now garnering over 6,700 signatures from U of T community members, has called for the fall semester to move entirely online due to concerns about the adequacy of the university’s reopening consultation process and its workplace guidelines. Dr. Terezia Zorić, President of the U of T Faculty Association, describes in-person activities as potentially “[jeopardizing] the health and safety of students, staff… and [the] U of T community.”

Experts at U of T’s own Dalla Lana School of Public Health, such as epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman, have also been critical of the university’s in-person plans.

Four US army recruits tested positive for COVID-19 this spring in a cohort of 640 arriving at Fort Benning, Georgia. Within a few weeks, by May 31, the disease had spread to over 100 other trainees. According to The Economist, this super-spreader event exemplifies how COVID-19 could circulate among college campuses from just a few students who test positive.

According to government data, Toronto has successfully reduced the number of new cases from almost 200 per day in April and May to more than 20 per week in mid-August. Nonetheless, there are concerns about densely-packed campus spaces acting as super-spreader sites, according to Fisman. 

Lack of a universal policy

The university is offering different plans across academic divisions and departments, with some divisions guaranteeing online delivery for courses, while others retain some level of in-person delivery. UTM and the Faculty of Music join the Faculty of Arts & Science in planning a hybrid delivery of online and in-person options.

Meanwhile, remote options for all coursework have also been promised for students at UTSC, the Faculty of Information, and the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, among others. 

“The safest course of action is obviously to require any course content that can be delivered online, to be delivered online,” Dr. Dionne Aleman, an associate professor of industrial engineering at U of T with expertise in pandemic spread, said to The Varsity. She advocates for U of T to set a universal policy for responding to COVID-19. “The fact that there’s a hodgepodge of policies across the different faculties is really problematic,” she said.

Zorić echoed Aleman’s position, writing to The Varsity that “the U of T Administration [should] take a step back and follow the safer option, which is online teaching and learning whenever possible.”

Responses from the university

U of T Vice-Provost Faculty and Academic Life Heather Boon responded by writing to The Varsity, “Instructors and [teaching assistants (TAs)] were able to choose if they wanted to teach small sections in person in the Fall for pedagogical reasons… Our Faculties and departments are being as flexible as possible to address the individual needs of our instructors and TAs.”

On policies to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread, Boon noted that U of T will implement “physical distancing, extra cleaning, new wipe dispensers, more hand sanitizers, plexiglass barriers, and improved ventilation filters that meet, and where feasible, exceed industry standards.” 

She further expanded on the university’s ventilation system, adding that U of T “is inspecting and ensuring that all ventilation’s systems are operational, as well as upgraded to MERV 13 filters where feasible, in all of its academic and administrative buildings to protect the safety of occupants.”

The number designation in a MERV filter refers to its efficiency in filtering particles of a specific size. MERV 13+ filters have frequently been recommended for filtering out particles of the coronavirus.

Boon also wrote that U of T has broadened its “mask policy and guidelines to now include the wearing of masks in all common indoor spaces including classrooms.”

The question of enforcement 

But Dr. Hugh Gusterson, a University of British Columbia anthropology professor, told The Varsity that behavioural measures may fail in practice. “A policy on paper looks great, but it’s useless if it’s not enforced,” he said.

Gusterson wrote in the anthropology magazine SAPIENS, “Social distancing and mask wearing would keep the virus from spreading, but how consistently will students follow these rules when they aren’t under supervision?” He also wrote that “widespread reports that COVID-19 tends to be less serious for young people will only encourage… risky behavior.”

Amy Conwell, Chair of labour union CUPE 3902 — which represents U of T education workers — similarly questioned U of T’s ability to implement the policy. “The University’s plan to enforce its new mask-wearing policy is vague, relying primarily on voluntary compliance while gesturing at some role for Campus Police,” she wrote.

In a statement responding to these concerns, Boon wrote that U of T “is taking a community-support and educational approach to enforcement, rather than an adversarial approach as per our values as a leading academic institution” and that policies will “focus on educating members of the community about [safety] measures.”

“We are developing equity-focused educational resources for students, faculty, librarians and staff including campus police, who will also take an educational approach to enforcement,” Boon added.

Service workers face highest risk

In August, researchers at Georgia Tech concluded that the highest mortality rate of COVID-19 — if spread unchecked on its campus — would be highest among its staff members, excluding faculty. In an interview with The Varsity, Gusterson noted that the most overlooked population in the university is its service workers.

“These are the people who clean dorm rooms, the janitors who empty the trash cans in classrooms, [the poorly] paid administrators who sit at the front desk in departments, constantly answering questions from students who breathe on them,” Gusterson said. 

He further noted that, often, “support staff are low paid [and] live in crowded circumstances… living with roommates or their families. So if one person gets it, they can spread it to the rest of the family.”