In its COVID-19 roadmap, the university outlines three guiding principles in dealing with the pandemic: promoting health and safety, advancing academic excellence, and meeting the needs of the community. However, The Varsity believes that the university administration has taken a minimalistic and reactive approach to this public health crisis.

Over the summer, community members raised numerous concerns about the insufficiency of the university’s reopening plan, particularly in terms of workers’ safety, income, employment, and generally in terms of the riskiness of in-person learning. Even the most basic matter of providing masks to community members came into question due to quality concerns

We call on the university to take on a more proactive and centralized approach in how it tackles the crisis — and properly address the financial and mental health circumstances of the pandemic faced by students.

Abandoning decentralization

In the spring, the university committed to a hybrid model where academic units — faculties and campuses — would be able to varyingly provide the option for students to take both online and in-person classes. This decision came despite general expectations of a second COVID-19 wave in the fall that would, as many students foresaw, inevitably push most, if not all, learning back online. 

Confronted with the evolving nature of the pandemic, most academic units ultimately chose to be predominantly online. The Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) backtracked on this matter to an extent — allowing instructors to switch to online learning. Still, many students remained signed up for in-person courses at the beginning of the fall semester.

Reactive decision making was further reinforced when the second wave became apparent in early October — leading academic units that had not already pushed all non-essential learning online to do so. This was frustrating, costly, and unfair to many students who, under the expectation of being offered an in-person learning experience, had already committed to travel to their campus and sign a lease for the year. 

The university fell short in two ways. First of all, even as the university acknowledges that the responsible decision is to reduce in-person learning, it did so in its typically decentralized manner — different academic units seemed to be asked to respond individually and voluntarily, just as it was left up to them to offer courses in the manner they saw fit. 

Faced with a public health crisis, the university administration must abandon its standard governance approach and embrace centralized, uniform decision making for the good of the entire community. Students recall that the university fell short with this approach in another safety-related situation in the winter of 2019, when the fact that its three campuses dealt with severe weather conditions in different ways came under criticism.

This brings us to the second point: if the university were to take on such a crisis with a centralized approach, it would be able to make bold, early, uniform, and proactive decisions, as opposed to reactive ones as decided by a given faculty or campus. Thrusting students into uncertain in-person circumstances during fall 2020 was clearly not the right call. The prudent decision would have been to push all learning online, with the exception of a small minority of essential activities that require physical presence.

Ahead of winter 2021, the university can choose to — immediately — make a centralized call that relieves the entire community of its public health uncertainties: it can move all courses that are not essential to be in person, online. Students should be not be expected to prepare for circumstances that are regularly changing, as happened with courses during the fall. 

Ideally, the university should have made this decision to go completely online for the entire 2020–2021 academic year. The University of Cambridge, for example, announced early on in May that all lectures would be online until the summer of 2021. Making the safe and responsible decisions proactively and early on allows for students to plan ahead in ways that do not cost them later down the road. 

Providing financial, mental health relief 

Since the summer, there have been significant student calls for the university to provide for tuition relief, especially as many courses have been offered online. This concerns international students in particular, who pay enormous tuition rates. The predominance of online learning has only expanded with the onset of the second wave this fall — and so the question of tuition relief continues to be important.

The university must answer: as most courses move online, which implies that in-person facilities and costs have been reduced, why are students not being offered relief for tuition fees? Why are incidental fees not being further reduced as services like gyms are discontinued? 

The global economic impact of the pandemic has been severe, including for students struggling to finance their studies and living. Accordingly, the university’s lack of investment in this area is deeply concerning. As the wealthiest academic institution in Canada, the university’s top priority ought to be to financially support its students and workers. 

At the very least, the university must be fully transparent to the community about its costs during the pandemic and why it feels that existing tuition and incidental fees are justified this year. 

Aside from financial challenges, students also face significant mental health barriers this year. The lack of an in-person campus experience combined with the unique challenges of  online learning contribute to isolation, alienation, and disengagement. Many students find it difficult to perform in courses under these circumstances. 

The mental health crisis at U of T precedes the pandemic, but the pandemic does serve to further expose it. The death of a student this month — the fifth student death since June 2018 — reinforces the need for the university to re-evaluate its approach to mental health and to challenge its hyper-competitive academic culture. 

Clearly, the university must invest more — not only in the services it offers toward mental health, but also in its outreach to students. U of T must ensure that the community is aware of the kinds of support that are available, and make sure that they do not experience barriers or fear of retribution in accessing them. 

Outside of immediate mental health policy, there must be more uniform decision making when it comes to offering academic relief. We applaud, for example, that the FAS is offering late withdrawals and credit/no credit options until the end of the term this year. But we believe that such options should be guaranteed to all students, on all campuses. The university should take on a centralized approach to mandate such relief.

We are alarmed by the range of student concerns that have been raised about the unique challenges of online learning, whether in terms of digital participation; the inaccessibility of technology; the nature of asynchronous courses’ assignments, digital examination, and grading; and the need for generous accommodations

The university must actively solicit feedback and respond to these concerns this year, as well as ensure that all academic units prioritize academic compassion and accessibility under these new learning circumstances. 

It is clear that the COVID-19 crisis poses unique challenges — but we believe that it also provides for new opportunities. We hope that the pandemic compels the university to understand the need to take on more proactive and centralized decision making in the service of the broader community. The status quo will not meaningfully help students face financial and mental health challenges at this unprecedented historical moment.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].