On November 20, U of T President Meric Gertler announced that first-entry undergraduate courses will resume January 11 instead of January 4, one week later than originally planned. Graduate and professional program start dates will vary, with some programs resuming on January 4 and some shifting to January 11.

Gertler clarified that some graduate programs are not changing their start date “to ensure that students in these programs can complete their courses in a timely manner as planned.”

At the Faculty of Arts & Science, the fall semester will still end on April 30, as originally planned, and the UTSG winter semester reading week will also remain unchanged, running from February 15–19. U of T Media Relations noted that the final exam period will be adjusted by each faculty or division. 

Gertler clarified that the change comes in light of the “extraordinary amount of stress for months now” that U of T community members have faced due to the “burdens imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.” He acknowledged the unique challenges people are facing due to the pandemic, such as being responsible for at-home child care. 

“Others among us are experiencing isolation and mental health challenges caused or exacerbated by the pandemic,” Gertler added, also noting that the university is working to fully complete a redesign of its mental health services, as announced last year.

The extended winter break is in line with other universities in Ontario, including McMaster University and Laurentian University, which have delayed their winter semesters as well. Some have suggested that an extended winter break may help to curb the spread of COVID-19, as Ontario has seen a surge of cases and a lockdown in downtown areas starting November 23. 

The university will still close for the winter break on December 23, reopening with staff-appointed employees on January 4. Gertler wrote that this is because shifting the semester poses administrative difficulties for staff. 

U of T will also be giving employees who are returning on January 4 three extra paid days off. The days can be used with approval from their manager any time between now and August 31. 

“We want to make sure that you’re able to rest and recharge, and to make the most of the upcoming holiday break,” wrote Gertler.

Student response to the extended break 

The decision also follows a surge of student demand for an extension of the winter break. The Arts and Science Students’ Union wrote in a tweet that it was in contact with the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) about the possibility of delaying the start of the winter semester.

A popular petition also circulated amongst students, asking for winter break to be extended, which garnered over 8,000 signatures. The petition was written by second-year students Javahir Saidov and Nada Abdelaal and third-year student Rahat Charyyev. 

In an email to The Varsity, Saidov, Abdelaal, and Charyyev wrote that they “did not expect [the petition] to grow so big so quickly.” 

“In less than 24 hours we got almost 6 thousand votes and tremendous support.”

They cited mental health struggles that may come with the pandemic as a reason for starting the petition. A short winter break is also difficult for international students because of the required 14-day quarantine protocol when returning to Canada — should they choose to go home for the break.

Saidov, Abdelaal, and Charyyev wrote that they were surprised but thrilled with the news that winter break would be extended. Although some students indicated concerns about a potentially shorter amount of time to study for final exams, the announcement that the exam schedule will be modified was reassuring.

“We are very thankful and humbled by the overwhelming support that we and our petition has received from the UofT community,” the petition organizers wrote. Following the announcement, they have heard mostly positive feedback from students.

Editor’s Note (November 22): This article has been updated to include comment from the students who petitioned for a winter break extension.