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“Pedagogy cannot come at the cost of health and safety”: a review of in-person labs

The Varsity looks into safety procedures, the shift to online learning
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The university is providing free non-medical masks for students but their effectiveness has been questioned. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
The university is providing free non-medical masks for students but their effectiveness has been questioned. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

In the summer, the University of Toronto announced that it would offer a mix of online and in-person courses this fall semester. This announcement was met with strong pushback from faculty members and staff. A petition launched by the unions representing faculty, administrative staff, and contract workers called on U of T to ‘take a pause’ from most in-person teaching and amassed over 6,500 signatures.

Currently, only around 10 per cent of the undergraduate courses in the Faculty of Arts & Science have an in-person component, a majority of them being teaching labs. The Varsity reviewed the safety protocols surrounding these labs.

Classroom sizes capped, questionable masks provided

Firstly, in-person class sizes have been reduced and capped at a maximum of 50 people, including teaching assistants (TAs) and instructors, according to provincial gathering limits. Furthermore, U of T is providing two non-medical masks to each student, staff, faculty member, and librarian. However, the effectiveness of the masks has been called into question because they are made of polyester instead of cotton.

Additionally, instructors can exempt students from wearing masks if learning activities can be performed safely with physical distancing and wearing a mask impacts the activities’ effectiveness. According to Amy Conwell, Chair of CUPE 3902 — the union that represents contract academic workers, including TAs who teach in labs — this is especially concerning given the risk of asymptomatic and airborne transmission of COVID-19.

The use of shared equipment is minimized with specific protocol in place. “For example, a TA may operate the equipment while a student observes from two metres away, or students may operate equipment one-at-a-time, disinfecting after each user,” Dr. Ahlia Khan-Troitter, Director of the Division of Teaching Labs, wrote in an email interview with The Varsity.

U of T also has a detailed Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) strategy. “The university has inspected and upgraded (where necessary) ventilation equipment in all of its academic and administrative buildings to ensure they are operating at or above industry standards,” Khan-Troitter wrote.

In a written interview with The Varsity, Susan McCahan, U of T’s Vice-Provost Academic Programs and Vice-Provost Innovations in Undergraduate Education, noted, “There are specific guidelines for all in-class instruction and teaching labs that go over everything from physical distancing, extra cleaning, new wipe dispensers, more hand sanitizers, plexiglass barriers, and heating and ventilation filters that exceed industry standards.”

“Labs will also follow special booking procedures to ensure physical distancing; start/end times will be staggered where possible and there will be extra time between labs to properly disinfect areas in between sessions,” McCahan added.

Balancing positives with concerns

So, what’s it like on ground zero? Look no further than Fatima Altaf, a UTSC student currently enrolled in CHMC47 — Bio-Organic Chemistry, an in-person lab where attendance is optional with limited space and concurrent online labs are offered.

“I chose to attend an in-person lab because of the practical skills that labs provide for students,” Altaf wrote. “I feel very safe attending the in-person labs because there is plenty of social distancing, safety measures and protocols that are followed and practised by all staff and students.”

However, despite the positive learning outcomes of in-person labs, there are multiple concerns. “Pedagogy cannot come at the cost of health and safety. Now, in the middle of the second wave, cases are popping up across campus, including a case in a lab just this week,” Conwell wrote. The Varsity could not independently verify Conwell’s claim of a COVID-19 case in a lab.

Furthermore, the experience of in-person labs this semester looks different. “Under the present circumstances, students are required to work alone, and interactions with instructors and TAs must be done in a manner that follows physical distancing guidelines,” wrote Dr. Kimberly Strong, Chair of the Department of Physics, which has two labs running only in person this fall.

“This year, most of these discussions are necessarily taking place online, and students are also not as free to discuss things amongst themselves as they would be in normal circumstances,” Strong added.

Khan-Troitter teaches an in-person course, BCH370 — Laboratory Course in Biochemical Techniques, and wrote, “The practical hands-on experience that labs provide to students is invaluable. They can see and feel the theory come to life… I am doing everything I can to provide this experience to students in a safe manner.”

“At the same time, I understand the importance of providing a lab experience for those students who cannot attend in person, so I am also developing virtual lab content (e.g., videos, interactive simulations, live demos) to provide as much of an immersive experience as I can for the online section in the Winter term,” Khan-Troitter added.