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Major student groups criticize U of T’s COVID-19 response, calls for financial support, online accessibility

University promises to respond to open letter from nine organizations
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The UTSU and other student unions have published an open letter about the university's response to COVID-19. HAYDEN MAK/THE VARSITY
The UTSU and other student unions have published an open letter about the university's response to COVID-19. HAYDEN MAK/THE VARSITY

On October 6, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and eight other major student groups at UTSG released an open letter entitled “Statement on the University of Toronto’s COVID-19 Response, Student Supports, and Fall 2020 Semester Plans.”

The letter makes 12 demands for financial support and relief from the university, including reducing tuition fees and the minimum fee to register, recording lectures for accessibility purposes, and for the university to address privacy concerns related to accessible learning.

The letter cites the drastic changes in many students’ finances due to COVID-19, which may impact students’ ability to navigate employment, housing, tuition, ancillary fees, and other associated costs.

The writers and co-signatories of this open letter were the Arts and Science Students’ Union, the New College Student Council, the Rotman Commerce Students’ Association, the Trinity College Meeting, the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit), the University of Toronto’s International Students’ Advocacy Network (ISAN), the UTSU Executive Committee, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, and the Woodsworth College Students’ Association.

The Office of the Vice-Provost Students has acknowledged receipt of the open statement and is working on a response.

Demands

The statement demands a reduction in the minimum fee to register at U of T, which Tyler Riches, UTSU Vice-President Public & University Affairs, believes “would help students avoid being ‘Financially Cancelled’ for the academic term.” The demand is concerned for low income students who, due to COVID-19, may be experiencing lost employment and reduced hours.

According to Anna Laranjeira from ISAN, international students’ study permits may also be impacted due to the financial issues associated with the deadline.

The letter also demands accommodation for students and support for professors to offer more accessibility options and address privacy concerns, including recordings of live lectures.

According to Riches, the demand mirrors the findings of the UTSU Report on Online Learning & Remote Classes, which found that students prefer synchronous live lectures, which are structured like in-person courses, and that the tool students find most helpful are lecture recordings.

The report also found that international students struggle with being in different time zones or have poor internet connection. Riches noted that students have raised privacy, logistical, and technological concerns to the UTSU about the use of online proctoring services, including Examity and ProctorU.

Liam P. Bryant, UC Lit President wrote to The Varsity that the issue is especially relevant to “third-party software… which isn’t necessarily beholden to the same policies of the University, especially for-profit software where commercial entities may have access to (by asynchronous submission, synchronous video monitoring, microphone monitoring, etc.) student information.”

Bryant added that the issue stems from the lack of support for teaching teams to make these accommodation changes and the academic culture that pits students against each other. Riches added that the university “should begin by asking students what they need to succeed in online classes, and what is working well right now.”

“The focus should be on ensuring students are able to access and understand course material, rather than focusing on constant evaluation,” Riches wrote.

Organizing the statement

According to Riches and Bryant, the 12 demands were initially identified in late August through events such as town halls that the student groups organized on behalf of their communities, and direct feedback from individuals.

Demands were then finalized through collaboration and input from student groups and societies across campus. The large scale effort was managed by students around the world through a group chat, frequent emails, and informal Zoom meetings.

Bryant and Riches shared that the interested parties determined that the demands in this statement best advocate for students in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Other faculties and groups, however, can use this statement to create statements that advocate for the needs of students in their own faculties.

“So even though they might not be on this document, their sentiments are in line with ours,” wrote Bryant.

U of T Media Relations did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.