On May 18, the University of Toronto highlighted its plans and steps to return to in-person learning in fall 2021. It is an improvement from the reopening plan in 2020 that was criticized by students and faculty members. In the 2020 reopening plan, the university did not listen to its experts, declined to meet with multiple campus group leaders together, and did not address issues related to inadequate ventilation systems and masking guidelines.
While this year’s 12-step reopening plan does address ventilation and masking, it lacks supportive services for those who are ill, could better expand upon masking policies, and should more proactively promote COVID-19 vaccines.
Need for supportive policies
Self-assessments such as UCheck, which are a major part of the reopening plan, are strongly recommended by Toronto Public Health. However, U of T’s reopening plan does not provide any policies to support students or staff who would get ill and would need to self-isolate.
A rapid review conducted by Alberta Health Services recommended that any screenings for illnesses such as COVID-19 need to be augmented with supportive policies to reduce the stigma of being absent due to illness. These policies must also address any barriers or disincentives that discourage students and staff from taking a sick day, such as the fear of missing class or a lack of sick pay.
There is evidence that supportive policies — such as providing an adequate number of sick days — can reduce the number of people who are ill on site, so the University of Toronto should implement supportive policies to ensure that students and staff are able to self-isolate without fearing loss of pay or marks.
Masking is an effective intervention to reduce COVID-19 spread and offer some protection. On August 10, 2020, the University of Toronto made wearing masks mandatory on campus. However, this policy does not address other concerns.
First and foremost, the University of Toronto needs to strictly enforce face masks because a high degree of compliance is required for masking to be effective. Places that had higher rates of mask wearing had fewer cases and mortalities, showing the benefits of universal masking and policies that support it.
Secondly, there needs to be education about masking: acceptable and non-acceptable masks, how to properly wear masks, and the benefits of masks. Certain masks, depending on the number of fabric layers and types of fabric, offer better protection than others. Masks with exhalation valves are harmful because they can spread virus particles to others. Rather than having readers refer to Health Canada for more information, a more proactive approach would be for the university to produce infographics conveying information on acceptable masks and effective mask wearing. Better messaging would make the mask mandate more effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Lastly, the University of Toronto should keep mask mandates enforced, even if students are fully vaccinated. There is emerging research that suggests people with compromised immune systems due to diseases or who are taking medications that suppress their immune systems are still at risk of COVID-19, even after vaccination. There is still limited evidence on when mask mandates can be lifted, and it is better to err on the side of caution.
Proactively promote the vaccine
The 12-step reopening plan includes holding mass vaccination clinics on all three campuses. Additionally, U of T has announced that students in residence must have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine within two weeks of their move-in date.
Enforcing mandatory vaccinations can backfire and undermine public trust in vaccines. A recent study found that respondents were less likely to support receiving an approved COVID-19 vaccine if they were mandatory compared to strongly recommended but voluntary. The authors wrote that trust in public institutions was the most important factor because those with lower trust in public institutions were less likely to get vaccinated.
To combat vaccine hesitancy, U of T should educate students on the benefits of vaccination, assist students with language or accessibility barriers in booking vaccinations, provide incentives like discounts and free food for those who are more vaccine-hesitant to ensure a safer reopening. With mandatory vaccinations, U of T must also consider issues regarding which vaccine brands are acceptable, the potential ethical and legal implications of discrimination and systemic racism on the basis of denying students access to services based on their vaccination status given global inequities in vaccine supply, and privacy issues arising from vaccine passports.
U of T’s 2021 reopening plan is a step above the 2020 plan in terms of addressing concerns related to masking and ventilation systems, but there are still areas for improvement.
William Nguyen is a fourth-year pharmacy student at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. He served on the 2020–2021 Academic Board of the Governing Council.