Nearly six months after U of T cancelled in-person classes on March 13 due to the spread of COVID-19, some in-person classes are set to be held again alongside online learning for the 2020–2021 school year.

However, the past five months have seen multiple changes to U of T’s reopening plan, as well as challenges to the plan by faculty and staff unions.

On-campus activity and changing plans

U of T first announced its plans for the year in May and later predicted that one third of classes would be in person. As the summer went on, however, more and more academic units shifted to primarily online learning. 

While most faculties and campuses are predominantly online, the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) originally intended to do a more even mix of in-person and online delivery. However, just over a month before the beginning of the school year, the FAS announced that courses could switch from in-person to online at the instructor’s request, frustrating some students whose plans were thrown up in the air at the last minute.

Other quick changes have punctuated U of T’s COVID-19 plans over the summer. When U of T’s mask plan did not originally mandate masks to be worn in classrooms, the university, following criticism, changed its policy less than two weeks later. 

U of T will also be giving out two reusable masks to community members, though some have raised questions about the efficacy of these masks, since they are made out of polyester instead of cotton, which is generally regarded as the most effective fabric against COVID-19.

Currently, the university estimates that 90 per cent of courses are online or have an online option, and the university has estimated that at any given time, less than five per cent of students will be on campus. U of T will also be allowing students to live in residence, though in single-occupancy rooms with limited access to common spaces such as dining halls.

Another concern over the summer was the fact that tuition for this year has not been reduced, with students pointing to the quality of online learning and calls for pandemic-related financial relief. International students, who face higher fees and a 5.3 per cent average increase in tuition this year, have especially expressed concern.

Resistance from labour unions

Even though most classes will be held online, a coalition of six unions still says it’s not enough. Over the summer, these unions put considerable pressure on the university to move the semester online, with unions claiming that it is unsafe to hold in-person classes. 

In an email to The Varsity, University of Toronto Faculty Association President Terezia Zoric summarized the union’s numerous concerns as being with “the state of ventilation on campus; associated risks such as plumbing and the spread of other bacteria (legionella, fecal coliform) due to buildings being left idle for months; a weak and ineffectual mask policy and guidelines; overly large in-person class sizes; problems with class scheduling.” 

According to Zoric, by not providing adequate solutions to these concerns, the university’s plan to reopen produces “unnecessary risk.”

The unions have also expressed ongoing disappointment about a lack of consultation with them. “The U of T Administration is stubbornly ignoring the expert advice of its own faculty members from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH) who are being consulted regularly by the World Health Organization, federal and provincial governments, and public health authorities,” wrote Zoric.

Procedure for COVID-19 cases

U of T also recently unveiled their plan for addressing COVID-19 cases that arise on campus.

Many universities in the US have cancelled all in-person classes after seeing an alarming increase in cases only a few days or weeks after reopening. However, U of T’s strategy does not include any plan to proactively test students, staff, or faculty.

The plan tells anyone who believes that they may have COVID-19 to “inform their academic leads or supervisors and contact the Occupational Health Nurse.” There will also be an online portal to help people monitor their symptoms and decide whether or not to come to campus. If cases arise, procedures are in place to clean areas, and rooms will be set aside in residences for students who need to self-isolate. 

Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh wrote to The Varsity that “In the event of a positive test result, staff at Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) will inform individuals who have had contact with the affected person while at U of T.” U of T’s plan does not allow supervisors, managers, or departments to communicate directly with their students, faculty, or staff about possible or confirmed COVID-19 cases, a stipulation that has caused concern among some community members.

In response to this part of the policy, the contract academic worker’s union, CUPE 3902, tweeted, “Seriously, @uoft? You’re not even going to inform students and workers of confirmed COVID cases on campus? We don’t need to invade privacy to know real health risks.”

Welsh did not answer a question about whether there will be any specific criteria for defining contact, instead noting that the university has “developed [its] plan based on public health and other experts and consulted with and continue to meet with [its] unions on a regular basis, leaving open the question of who will be informed if someone in an in-person class or residence building tests positive for COVID-19. She also did not directly respond to a question on whether information about COVID-19 cases on campus will be accessible to the public. 

“As we did in the spring, we will follow the guidance of government and health authorities and follow their guidance in releasing information about cases on campus,” wrote Welsh.

How U of T’s plan compares to those of other universities

Reopening universities during the pandemic has been a concern everywhere. But how many are actually reopening, and to what extent?, a website that gathers data on higher education in Canada, has been collecting information on how universities across the country are adapting to COVID-19. A majority of postsecondary schools across Ontario, 60 per cent, are entirely online, while 37 per cent are using a hybrid model like U of T. Ontario schools are overall choosing online learning slightly more than all of Canada, where 53 per cent of schools are going online. 

Robert Furtado, CEO and founder of Coursecompare, also pointed to U of T’s relatively large international student population as a possible motivation for some in-person classes, since some international students may face unreliable internet or restrictions on internet use at home.

Editor’s note (September 15): This article has been updated to correct Welsh’s response to a question about specific criteria for defining contact.