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Opinion: Let’s listen to the experts — U of T’s reopening plan is flawed

Reviewing the community panel that exposed the plan's lack of safety
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Student life on campus was thrown into mania back in March — students packing up their dorms, classes moving online, and exams being reformatted within a matter of days. Nearly six months later, still in this pandemic, universities are launching their back-to-school plans.

The University of Toronto is planning to partially reopen its doors, and while some may be excited to get back on campus, I am indignant that this decision has not earned a confident consensus from experts.

During a virtual event hosted by several of the unions that represent workers at U of T, epidemiologist, panelist, and professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health David Fisman was asked what letter grade he would assign U of T’s back to school plan. “I’m going to give the school a weak ‘D’ grade,” he responded, “because they did have hand sanitizer dispensers — that prevents the ‘F.’ ”

Initially, U of T planned to offer over 90 per cent of undergraduate courses online and provide in-person options for a third of classes within some faculties. Many faculty members were adamantly against this as they were required to teach on campus, regardless of their own comfort.

Due to backlash, that plan was revised for the Faculty of Arts & Science, and professors were given the opportunity to confirm if they were comfortable teaching in person or instead wanted to move their classes online. But U of T’s reopening plan is still riddled with issues and lacks scientific support — which leaves very little room for students to feel confident that the administration’s protocols can keep them safe.

U of T now claims that only five per cent of the student body will be on campus at any given time. However, Robarts Library is offering public study spaces and the law and music libraries are open to their respective students. These study hubs have the potential to lure in fully online students and create an influx of traffic on campus, putting students further at risk.

The university is currently mandating masks be worn indoors and is providing two reusable masks to every student and worker, with exceptions for those with medical conditions or those who are partaking in athletics.

While that may seem good initially, James Scott, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, pointed out during the panel that these masks were not produced in compliance with scientific recommendations.

The Canadian Medical Association recommends a tightly woven fabric like cotton, while the ones U of T is providing are made of polyester. Additionally, because polyester is so smooth, it doesn’t filter out particles as well as rougher textures — like cotton — do. This is an apparent effort to choose cost efficiency over students’ health.

To put U of T’s plan in perspective, the University of Ottawa, another metropolitan university partially reopening, is offering testing on campus to make it accessible to students and staff. At the bare minimum, U of T should offer onsite testing if it wants to keep its doors open to students while also keeping campus safe.

We cannot overlook the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately affects working Black and brown people. Arjumand Siddiqi, Canada Research Chair in Population Health Equity and Division Head of Epidemiology, discussed this during the panel. “I read over the documents that have been released by the administration and am again very disappointed that this fundamental issue has not been at all addressed,” she said.

Siddiqi went on to express concern for Black and brown working class students, Black and brown faculty with working class parents, and staff at U of T.

She concluded by saying: “The tradeoff is that by giving students this in person rather than online university experience, we are asking many of the people who would make that experience possible, as well as many of those students themselves, to risk their lives, and it just seems like an unconscionable tradeoff.”

Given the administration’s current plans, Siddqui’s conclusion cannot be ignored. There are absolutely some learning experiences that cannot be recreated online, and for those courses it is important to have in person classes, but, to minimize the risk for individuals who must return to campus, the responsible thing is to remain off campus unless absolutely necessary.

Personally, I have no intention of setting foot on campus this fall and I’m thankful all my classes are online. As someone whose family and loved ones have been severely impacted by COVID-19, I know the devastating impact it can have and want to ensure that I’m not increasing anyone’s risk of contracting it. I imagine there are plenty of other students in the same position.

U of T boasts itself as being the most prestigious research institution in Canada and it is disheartening to see a school formed on the pursuit of knowledge and belief in science consistently ignore its own experts.

Hayley Spenst is a second-year criminology and political science student at Woodsworth College.