To be frank, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty and fear for the general public. As cases are once again rising in Ontario, particularly among young people, the university must continue to protect its students during the pandemic.
Although the university has taken measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, much more needs to be done.
During the summer, the university announced it would offer U of T students and staff two free face masks each. These can easily be picked up at various locations on campus at during posted times.
However, the quality of these masks has already come into question. According to epidemiologist David Fisman, these masks may not offer adequate protection because they are made from double-ply polyester that cannot filter as effectively as cotton.
Students may not be safe if they just wear the university provided masks and are better off wearing store-bought surgical masks or homemade cotton masks.
The university could have averted this controversy if they had just provided cotton masks to begin with. Instead, students who are concerned about the quality of these masks now need to invest their own money into protective equipment in order to feel safe on campus.
U of T acknowledged mental health concerns among the student population by partnering with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to launch a discussion forum. The forum allows students to communicate with each other on how they are coping with the pandemic and recieve advice from social workers on a case-by-case basis.
Facebook livestream events are also periodically being offered to provide tools for students on how to cope with negative emotions and deal with stress during this time. The university has listed a number of hotlines on the COVID-19 information page as well.
While the university is clearly making an effort, these services remain largely unknown to the student population.
While the intention behind the forum may be pure, it cannot act as a substitute for the long-term professional help that many actually need.
Regular student protests concerning the mental health crisis that have occurred over the last few years have pointed out the university’s obvious lack of services. Now more than ever, the university must step up and offer accessible mental health services for its students.
UCheck, a COVID-19 self assessment web portal, has become available for staff and students to independently assess their symptoms. Members of the U of T community can evaluate their COVID-19 risk status on their electronic devices to see if they should come to campus. They can also receive advice on what to do based on their risk status.
It must be emphasized that the UCheck portal is not a diagnostic tool for accurate COVID-19 screening.
Upon using the portal, I found it personally underwhelming. The self-assessment tool merely asked whether you have any of the symptoms presented in the list, if you have recently had contact with sick individuals or those suspected of having COVID-19, and if you have travelled in the past 14 days. Much of this is common sense.
If U of T really wants to commit to keeping students and staff safe, it shouldn’t be focusing its attention on a portal that cements precautions that everyone already knows. Instead of an unnecessary diagnostic tool, U of T should provide testing sites close to campus so that members of the community can be confident that they and the people around them aren’t a threat to public health.
While students do have the means and knowledge to protect themselves and others with hand sanitizers, masks, and provincial mandates on social gatherings, that does not necessarily mean that all students will abide by the rules.
In fact, Western University made the news after a sudden spike of cases emerged on campus. U of T recently had a scare of its own when it found out that two people with COVID-19 visited the Student Centre at UTM.
Of course, the majority of students will be responsible, but it takes just a few careless people or legitimate accidents for the virus to spread on campus.
If the university wants to remain committed to its mixed course delivery system, at the very least it should be transparent about its contact-tracing plans instead of feeding students generic lines about its efficacy. Indeed, there has yet to be a publicized protocol for contact-tracing on campus.
Better yet, the university should not have offered non-essential classes in person to begin with. While it’s understandable that labs and other class formats that require hands-on learning can’t be shifted to online, there are still a number of in-person classes being held that could very easily make the transition to online delivery.
This would have allowed international students to stay home and not put themselves at risk by flying back to Canada. It would further reduce crowding on campus, decreasing the likelihood of an outbreak. And it would allow professors to focus on one form of delivery instead of having to juggle a hybrid experience, both online and in person.
Although the university has taken important steps to protect its students, much more needs to be done. Simply providing free polyester masks and a self-assessment portal is not enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Now that students are struggling financially and emotionally while trying to protect their health, the university must work to fulfill its duty to take care of its faculty and students.
Hyerin Jeong is a fourth-year student studying physiology and cell and molecular biology at New College.