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2020 recapped: a history of COVID-19 at U of T

University reports 140 cases in the community, two outbreaks on campus since March
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JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY
JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY

Almost a year ago, on January 25, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 in Canada was confirmed in a Toronto man. Less than two months later, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and the first case of COVID-19 at U of T was confirmed on March 16. 

As 2020 came to a close, COVID-19 was permanently etched into the history of U of T, Canada, and the world. And as 2021 begins, the pandemic shows no signs of letting up in the near future as Ontario has seen a huge spike in recent days with cases and hospitalizations continuing to increase. 

With U of T moving into another semester affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, The Varsity broke down the history of how COVID-19 has affected U of T in 2020. 

COVID-19 cases in the U of T community 

Since March 14, there have been 140 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U of T community, with only two confirmed outbreaks on campus. From March 4 to the end of the winter 2020 semester, 19 cases of COVID-19 were reported, with 16 reported over the summer. The vast majority of cases were reported throughout the fall 2020 semester, with 105 confirmed cases in the U of T community. 

Beginning in summer 2020, U of T reports cases of COVID-19 in the U of T community and outbreaks on campus on its website. Cases of COVID-19 are those reported to the university from members of the community, who have not necessarily been on campus or had contact with other community members. Outbreaks on campus are announced with input from Toronto Public Health officials and recorded to the website. 

According to a spokesperson for the university, these are reported “in an effort to keep everyone informed.” 

Generally, the number of new cases decreased over the summer and then increased as the fall semester went on. The trend on campus roughly mirrors the amount of cases in Canada as a whole, which decreased over the summer and saw a huge increase as the second wave hit toward the end of the year. 

U of T confirmed two campus outbreaks since March 2020 on the dashboard: one during the week of November 7–13 and one during the week of December 19–25. Outbreaks are confirmed by U of T’s Occupational Health and Safety Office alongside Toronto Public Health and Peel Public Health, and they are recorded on the database every three to five days.

The two incidents of COVID-19 spread on campus, which were reported directly to the U of T community, included two cases at UTM, which caused the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union offices to close for two weeks, and four cases after a non-university-affiliated athletic activity in November.

‘Reopening’ in fall 2020

On campus, U of T went into the fall semester with plans for some in-person activities and reopened residences. Plans for in-person courses varied by faculty, with the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS), the largest faculty, initially offering many courses with in-person or hybrid options.

However, the decision to return to partial in-person learning was met with resistance from six unions that petitioned the university to move courses online during the summer, believing that the university’s reopening plans were unsafe.

Ultimately, the majority of courses during the fall semester took place online after the first month. As almost all learning has transitioned online, the quality of online courses has also been questioned, with a recent survey revealing that most students found a decrease in the quality of courses when they moved online.

Financial and academic advocacy during the pandemic

Over the summer, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, along with a number of other unions on campus put out a letter that demanded lowered tuition fees for the 2020–2021 school year due to COVID-19. International students also petitioned for lower fees.

Despite such student activism, U of T did not lower tuition fees, claiming that students were receiving the same courses online as they would have in person. They did lower incidental fees, including club fees and gym fees, as many students were unable to access in-person university services. 

Returning to campus also brought extra difficulties for international students, who were required to quarantine for two weeks before classes started. U of T offered a free quarantine program in nearby hotels and residences for those who needed them, which was offered at a cost for the winter semester for students who had already quarantined through the school before.

The year ahead 

Moving into the winter 2021 semester, the majority of courses will take place online again. In November, the FAS announced that courses would be moved online, a departure from the earlier plan of having a hybrid model.

To adjust university life to pandemic times, precautions on campus have grown to include mandated masks and physical distancing in public spaces, as well as use of the UCheck app, which asks those coming to campus in person to report their symptoms to the university.  

The beginning of the winter 2021 semester has also been delayed by one week, with U of T President Meric Gertler asserting that an extra week may allow students to rest before the next semester begins.