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Parties rage on amid inconsistent COVID-19 protocols, enforcement among U of T residences

U of T spokesperson: “onus” on students to follow safety measures
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At Trinity College, security guards patrol the hallways during the evenings and snuff out any large gatherings in dorm rooms. A few hundred metres across campus at University College (UC), some students gather in groups as large as 10 unmasked within the privacy of their own rooms, according to Pranay Prem, a second-year UC student and residence porter.

Residence dons and porters like Prem go on rounds of the hallways and public areas to enforce the COVID-19 protocols. There are, however, some difficulties. “Whatever happens in your own room is understandably not under the same jurisdiction ie. not wearing masks in your room.”

The Varsity found that U of T’s COVID-19 residence policies are largely decentralized, with colleges mostly deciding which measures to implement and how they will be enforced. This has left the seven individual protocols at U of T a patchwork of different measures. 

Though all U of T students living in residences have to sign a document that outlines basic COVID-19 rules — such as regulations pertaining to face coverings, outside guests, and physical distancing — before moving in, several policies are determined at the college level. Specific rules around common rooms, study halls, dining halls, music practice rooms, and shared washroom use are set by the college, based on information from public health officials and the government. 

A spokesperson for U of T wrote in a statement to The Varsity, “The Colleges are guided by U of T COVID-19 guidelines and work closely with Environmental Health and Safety with respect to planning and implementation of COVID-19 related protocols. Administrators at all Colleges are in constant communication with one another to share best practices and the latest information on public health requirements.”

The results tell a different story though: one about contradictory policies based on different interpretations of general government orders. 

One of the main discrepancies between residence protocols pertains to common room use. At Victoria College, for example, common rooms are open, but advanced booking is needed for contact-tracing purposes. However, at Innis College, most common rooms are closed, though study halls remain open. At UC, common rooms in the college’s 15 residence houses are open and no advanced booking is needed. 

It is important to note, however, that U of T’s residences differ greatly in terms of accommodation types and building features. The university has suite-style residences, dorm-style accommodations, and rooms with private or shared washroom facilities. These variations may affect the types of residence protocols in place. 

A U of T spokesperson provided The Varsity with the following statement: “The University of Toronto has put in place a number of safety measures to help students stay safe and healthy in residence during the pandemic. These measures meet and, in some cases, exceed public health guidelines.”

The information collected for this article was sourced from online updates posted by college residences. In addition, The Varsity interviewed 14 U of T students from the university’s seven college residences to learn about the extent of protocol enforcement and to ask: do they feel safe at U of T amid the stay-at-home order?

Compliance with COVID-19 measures

According to those interviewed, students at some colleges are following restrictions more closely than those at others.

At Victoria College, there hasn’t been significant rule-breaking since a series of incidents involving students during orientation week, according to second-year student Atharv Agrawal, who lives in Lower Burwash. He also noted how empty the college is. Usually, each floor in his residence building would house six to eight students. This year, there are only two per floor. 

Fourth-year Victoria College student Jai Kakkar, who lives in Rowell Jackman Hall, also emphasized how quiet his residence floor is. “I’ve stayed in this building for 3 years now and this is the only year I can hear the elevators moving because that’s how quiet the building is,” he wrote in an email to The Varsity. “It is dead quiet.”

Across Queen’s Park at UC, the situation is much different. Friends from different residence houses intermingle and gather inside each others’ dorm rooms in the evening — often without masks — to drink and party. According to Prem and another student who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution having attended a party, groups can be as large as 10. 

According to Prem, who lives in Morrison Hall at UC, “There aren’t a lot of parties, but it still does happen… for the most part, everyone has been following the COVID-19 protocols.” However, he notes that parties and large gatherings have also been “consistent throughout the year.”

“It can be quite anxiety-inducing,” wrote Prem. He explained that there has been some friction between first-year students, “who didn’t expect their first year at university to be like this,” and those who are trying to enforce the policies.

Prem later wrote to The Varsity that policies in residence have been updated to limit gatherings in rooms to three people.  

But parties and large gatherings are not unique to UC.

Mihika Vyas, a first-year student at St. Michael’s College who lives in Fisher Residence, said that there have also been gatherings in her residence. “I personally haven’t been to a party yet, but I know of ones that have taken place,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity. “There haven’t been large gatherings but definitely more than 3 people in a room.”

Vyas indicated that the rules are not often enforced by the administration or the dons. “You could also easily sneak other students in.”

The Varsity also obtained two videos posted on Instagram showing a New Year’s dorm room party with at least 10 students at Campus One, which was open to university students over the break. None of the students were wearing masks. 

In the fall semester, U of T students would also gather at night in large groups at Queen’s Park to party. “Every week, about 8-20 people congregate around one or two tables,” wrote Raina Uppal, a first-year Trinity College student who witnessed the gatherings, in an email to The Varsity

“Masks are worn 5% of the time at most, only when people are absolutely freezing or approaching people from other colleges. Last year, it was common for people to drink from the same bottles and smoke from the same cigarettes/joints.” 

When The Varsity reached out to U of T for comment on these stories, a U of T spokesperson wrote, “The health and safety of residences is a shared responsibility with students, and the onus is on them to follow guidelines when it comes to social distancing, the wearing of masks and limits on the numbers of people who can gather in public spaces. Residence staff and U of T take an initial educational approach to those who don’t comply with COVID guidelines and measures.”

The spokesperson continued, “The University also has a specific process in place that can invoke appropriate codes of conduct if students continue to fail to comply with these safety protocols.”

Lack of a specific plan for all Ontario university residences

The discrepancies between U of T college residences in terms of COVID-19 protocols and enforcement mirror the varied approaches universities across Ontario have taken with regard to residence and campus COVID-19 policies following the winter break. 

U of T reopened residences on schedule on January 3. Shortly thereafter, some study spaces on campus — such as Robarts Library, Gerstein Library, and Hart House — partially reopened to students. According to a January 14 update on the U of T Library website, these study spaces were deemed “essential resources within the regulations set out by the Government of Ontario,” and they are intended for students who “cannot continue their academic programs without access to computer hardware and stable wifi.”

Yet, other universities in the province, such as Queen’s University and McMaster University, have not deemed library study spaces an essential resource, despite also reopening residences in early January. At Western University, residences will remain closed until early to mid-February. The university had recorded a major COVID-19 outbreak near the start of the fall semester. 

But Western’s decision to leave residences closed is largely the exception. As the majority of Ontario university residences reopened following the winter break, experts have sounded the alarm. 

“Universities and college campuses are the one component where most students can do the majority of learning virtually,” said epidemiologist and U of T assistant professor Ashleigh Tuite in a mid-January interview with the Toronto Star. “We need to make trade-offs here.”

The wide discrepancies between universities’ approaches to residence operations may partly be attributed to the lack of specific guidance from the province. Public Health Ontario routinely publishes COVID-19 resources for congregate living spaces. However, of the 26 documents published since the start of the pandemic, none are directly targeted for university residences or specifically mention recommended protocols for spaces commonly found in university residences, such as study halls or common rooms. 

In July 2020, the Government of Canada released guidelines for postsecondary institutions, but it has not updated this since September 2020. In a statement to The Varsity, spokesperson Scott Clark from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities did not indicate if there are specific provincial regulations in place to guide the operations of university residences, writing, “Ontario’s publicly-assisted universities are separate legal entities with responsibility for both academic and administrative matters.”

The Varsity also contacted the Council of Ontario Universities for comment on the protocol discrepancies between its members, which includes U of T. A spokesperson wrote in a statement, “Our institutions continue to work collaboratively with local public health units and the Ministry of Health in order to implement the necessary protocols to prevent, monitor and respond to cases of COVID-19 on local university campuses, should they occur.”

COVID-19 on campus

According to a spokesperson for the City of Toronto, there have been four reports of COVID-19 non-compliance at UTSG since September 2020. All four were “park-related complaints” for illegal gatherings, lack of physical distancing, and use of park amenities. 

U of T has confirmed three COVID-19 outbreaks on campus since March 2020: one during the week of November 7–13, another during the week of December 19–25, and the third confirmed on January 27. None of the outbreaks involved students in residence. There have been a total of 183 cases of COVID-19 reported by members of the U of T community — but this figure may include individuals who were not on campus. 

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said that COVID-19 can easily spread in congregate living spaces such as college residences due to the virus’ high transmissibility. 

“It’s probably the most infectious virus we’ve had, at least in 100 years,” she said. “It can burn through institutions very quickly once it’s there.”

A spokesperson from U of T wrote, “Residences also implement changes as needed, and communicate with their students based on local considerations, such as the type of residence.”

For some students at U of T, however, the messaging from college administrators has not been clear enough. 

“Unfortunately, our administration has not been the most effective at communicating its protocols,” Miha Sanjida, a first-year student who lives in residence at Innis College, wrote in an email to The Varsity. “Oftentimes, there are breaks in communication between administration and students, or their goals and new policies are unclear. For example, I did not receive an email about contact-tracing in study rooms until long after the measure had been put in place, and even then there was miscommunication as to how to book time slots.”

Despite the pandemic and the restrictions in place, some students do not regret moving into residence this year. “Despite COVID, I have met some truly high-quality people who I might never have known had I stayed home,” wrote Amalie Wilkinson, a first-year student at UC who lives in Sir Daniel Wilson Hall, in an email to The Varsity. “Even in dire times, my friends in residence provide an invaluable mental health support, which is increasingly important with prolonged isolation.”

But for others such as Kakkar, the lack of socialization and the change in atmosphere compared to previous years has taken a toll on their mental health. “I feel safe from COVID-19 given all the procedures and policies in place,” he wrote. “But I don’t feel safe for my mental health, given that it’s so isolated and I don’t want to partake in any building zoom events, because I just can’t stand my laptop these days.”

Banerji acknowledged that COVID-19 protocols at university residences should strike a balance between public health and some levels of socialization. “Having someone only eat in a room and only stay in a room — that’s also very hard on mental health as well,” she said. “I can see how it’d be very isolating.” 

“I’m hoping that people use judgment,” Banerji continued.

Although the province of Ontario has paused social circles, or ‘bubbles,’ as of October 2020 due to climbing case counts, Banerji suggested that establishing a small social bubble among individuals living in the same space and who already share common areas, such as a common washroom, may be safe. 

Banerji noted, however, that social circles must remain tightly sealed in order to prevent it from becoming an “open circuit,” which occurs when individuals within a bubble interact with individuals outside the bubble and therefore risk bringing the virus into the group. Large gatherings and parties are also a cause for concern for Banerji.

She wrote, “You’re hoping that there’s a certain level of maturity [and] understanding that this is a pandemic and people are dying.”

Editor’s note (February 1): This article has been corrected to distinguish between UC residence’s enforcement in public areas and the difficulties of enforcement in private rooms, to clarify Prem’s comments about partying, to add corroboration from an anonymous source about partying, and to report on a new UC three person per room policy update. 

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