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Editorial: Let’s try this again, U of T

Safety and accessibility must go hand in hand as we enter yet another ‘unprecedented’ year
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“While in isolation, if students aren’t provided with academic flexibility, they may undergo even more stress than usual,” writes the Editorial Board. THEO ARBEZ/THE VARSITY
“While in isolation, if students aren’t provided with academic flexibility, they may undergo even more stress than usual,” writes the Editorial Board. THEO ARBEZ/THE VARSITY

It feels like we’ve been here before.

Once again, the University of Toronto has made plans to return to normal. Last year, in-person classes lasted for mere weeks before provincial restrictions forced campuses to shutter. Almost immediately, students were swept up again in the challenges of online learning: mental health struggles, isolation from peers and friends, and a lower quality of education that made tuition dollars feel like wasted money.

We are concerned that all of this will happen again. Last year, the university was equally confident that in-person learning could happen, but it was caught unaware by another set of restrictions from the City and province. We are concerned that, if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, a return to online learning will be far more challenging and frustrating to implement than it was last year.

Simply put, U of T has not released a response plan for multiple, large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus. Nor are there easily accessible plans on how instructors should pivot back to online learning if that proves to be necessary. A genuine, codified commitment to flexibility and accessibility from U of T’s administration is the only thing that will get us through this year successfully. 

This includes online learning options for quarantining students, which would also serve as a precautionary measure should another lockdown occur. We need to give up our usual expectations of academic rigour in favour of protecting students’ safety and mental well-being. Students deserve flexibility and understanding, because in-person learning is not guaranteed to last.

We are facing the opening act of a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, led by the more transmissible Delta variant. Public health experts, including U of T faculty, are in unanimous agreement over this fact, but the university seems intent to ignore the reality that is barrelling toward us: that we have to be prepared to return to online learning.

We are calling on U of T to release a concrete, comprehensive plan for how outbreaks on campus will be treated. How will students living in residence be ensured of their safety? How serious does an outbreak need to be before activities move online? Without answers to these questions, we are putting the health of our students, staff, and faculty at risk.

Are we prepared for another lockdown?

The plans for in-person delivery vary across departments and faculties. Many courses will be online, including course offerings from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UTM, and UTSC; but there are still enough in-person gatherings in the Faculty of Arts & Science to raise concerns. These include the large first-year classes like MAT133Y1 — Calculus and Linear Algebra for Commerce, ENG140 — Literature for our Time, CSC148 — Introduction to Computer Science, WGS160 — Introduction to Women and Gender Studies and PHL100Y1 — Introduction to Philosophy (Historical), which have over 200 students per lecture section.

And at least one residence, Woodsworth College residences, is planning to operate at full capacity.

COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory — and that’s excellent news — but this policy may not be sufficient against the fourth wave.

Don’t take our word for it. Look to the Ontario Science Table, which released a report on September 1 warning that vaccinations are still significantly below where they need to be to seriously dampen the fourth wave. These warnings are not to be taken lightly. After infection, the Delta variant is two to three times more likely to result in hospitalization than the original variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

So we know a fourth wave is coming. But will U of T’s reopening policies be equipped to handle it?

To answer that question, we can again turn to the Science Table report. It clearly asserts that capacity limits for large gatherings are crucial to managing this wave — and yet we have residences operating and large in-person classes.

Terezia Zorić, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), recently wrote an open letter to the administration where she laid out concerns about in-person teaching. She wrote that UTFA members are “worried, upset, and angered about being required to teach in crowded classrooms scheduled at full occupancy.”

We all want normal. After a long year of online learning and COVID-19 lockdowns, we all want to see a St. George Street that’s bustling and alive again — but the world since March 2020 has not been defined by what we want. It has been defined by the situations we have found ourselves in. Our concerns about a fourth wave of COVID-19 outbreaks mean that however grim, however disheartening the prospect of another semester online is, we have to be ready for it.

We need to be prepared to pivot to online learning — and this means seeing a plan from the university about how we’ll do it. Many of us dislike online learning, but if we already have it available for accessibility’s sake, we’ll be able to switch over to it in a way that’s far better than if the university announces its online learning plans at the last minute and leaves everyone scrambling.

Why accessibility is important for online learning plans

At the very beginning of the pandemic — now over a year and a half ago — many professors gave out extensions with impunity, radically changed end-of-year assessments, and did everything in their power to make students feel like they were supported during that period of change. 

Accordingly, U of T added a disclaimer to all students’ transcripts: “In the 2019-20 academic year, the University of Toronto was affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.” However, U of T students have continued to be deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic for every semester since — and yet we haven’t seen the same commitment to accessibility from our university.

Things have been “unprecedented” for a while. Although the virus is no longer new, the ever-changing nature of the pandemic and related restrictions means that every few weeks, it feels like we are living in a different mini-pandemic. 

What happens if students need to quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19? How will they be able to keep up with their courses if there is no way for them to smoothly transition to and from online learning? 

If professors do not record lectures or grant extensions freely to students who may be undergoing difficult experiences — including those who might have to quarantine or be in isolation for two weeks — students may feel forced to come to class, even if it isn’t safe for them to do so. 

While in isolation, if students aren’t provided with academic flexibility, they may undergo even more stress than usual. This will only contribute to the mental health crisis we’ve already seen at U of T.

There can be no complete return to normal — not this year, not yet. Instead, what we want to see is a commitment across the board from U of T’s campuses, faculties, and departments that the accessibility suggestions we’ve already made will be a part of their safety plans this year — along with precautions like masks and ventilation. An accommodating professor can do a lot to keep students home and stop the spread of COVID-19 on campus, and a lack of accommodations could have devastating effects. 

The problem with cramming culture

We also need to make changes to the way we think about academic rigour. We know that the pandemic exacerbates mental health concerns, financial concerns, and academic stress for young people in particular. 

Students can best protect the health and safety of their community if they feel supported academically by this institution. For years, students at U of T have complained that its culture of academic excellence has actually contributed to a culture of mental unwellness in which students sacrifice their mental health for good marks. 

We are concerned that U of T will continue to promote this culture — a culture that puts academic success above students’ health. If we don’t change the way we think about academics, U of T’s culture might pressure sick students to attend class and contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

Instead, by formalizing policies around flexibility, attendance, deadlines, lecture recordings, and online attendance options for students who may have COVID-19 or have to quarantine because of exposure, we can create a model of education that works for everyone and makes the campus safer for every person. 

And in the long run, all of this preparation can help us reflect on what really matters. We can finally listen to the ways in which students have been suffering under a system that does not care about their well-being, and we can make permanent changes to the way we think about learning at U of T.

Now is the time to do it. While we are faced with the frightening idea of a fourth wave of this pandemic; if we want to protect students’ safety and well-being, we need to be prepared now.

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].