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“We’re headed for a grim fall”: A review of U of T’s return to campus strategy

Scientists call for multiple layers of protection against virus spread, including physical distancing
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The possibility of packed classrooms, like this one pre-pandemic, have scientists worried. ERICA LIU/THE VARSITY
The possibility of packed classrooms, like this one pre-pandemic, have scientists worried. ERICA LIU/THE VARSITY

U of T has reopened its doors for everyone to return to campus. While being back on campus after more than a year of online school is certainly a breath of fresh air for many students, many others still have concerns about the safety of going back in person and whether we should be returning at all. Although the prospect of another year online might seem grim, is it ultimately the safest option?

A few months ago, the university released its 12-point strategy for safely returning to campus, which includes health screenings through UCheck, physical distancing — with an exception for classroom activities — face masks, increasing sanitizing stations, upgrading building ventilation and air filtration, and student and staff vaccinations, among other things.

While the university is making strong claims that it’s prepared for a safe return, scientists and public health experts have been skeptical about the idea that we should be going back to campus at all, let alone whether U of T is well prepared for it. In an online webinar hosted on September 9 by the University of Toronto Faculty Association, a panel of experts, including David Fisman, Ashleigh Tuite, and Jeffrey Siegel, spoke about the danger of reopening university campuses and the flaws in some of the methods that U of T is using to prepare for in-person classes.

How U of T has prepared to return

One of the ways that the university has prepared for its reopening is by mandating vaccines for all students, staff, and faculty who want to come to campus. Members of the U of T community have to upload their proof of vaccination, which can be downloaded from the Ontario government’s COVID-19 website, onto UCheck — an online COVID-19 self-assessment tool — to be allowed on campus. 

In an email to the community, the university administration wrote that it “[expects] all members of the community to have their first vaccine dose by September 13, and to have received their second dose by October 15.” A person is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving their second dose, so the university expects everyone to be fully vaccinated by October 29. 

According to an email from a U of T spokesperson, as of September 15, around 65,000 community members had uploaded their proof of vaccination to UCheck. This is roughly half of U of T’s population, which includes at least 110,000 students, faculty, and staff, according to U of T’s 2020 Facts & Figures document. According to the government of Ontario’s website on COVID-19 vaccination data, about 79 per cent of Ontario’s eligible population has received two doses.

While U of T has implemented a way for members of its community to upload proof of their vaccination, it is unclear how the university plans to enforce the vaccine mandate. 

A U of T spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity, “Students, faculty, librarians, staff and other community members may be asked [about their vaccination status] in campus areas that are high-volume with a transient flow of people to show via UCheck they have been vaccinated.” However, it is not clear if this will be applied on a university-wide scale. The spokesperson added that the university will provide more information later on.

Several campus unions have asked the university to be open and transparent about all measures it is taking — and especially about the limitations of those measures — since the health and safety of all students, staff, and faculty depends on them. Even though case counts are relatively low at the moment, there is a real chance that things could get much worse. 

“We are looking at potentially having a fourth wave of [COVID-19] that is as bad or potentially worse than the waves we’ve experienced [before] today,” said Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH) at U of T and member of the Ontario Science Table during the panel discussion.

Masks and physical distancing have been a few of the main ways to try and slow down the spread of the virus; however, as more and more people gather into small classrooms, the practicality and effectiveness of masks and physical distancing start to decline. An Ontario government report from July said that universities should prepare for a normal return in the fall with no capacity limits. 

The U of T spokesperson wrote that the university would await further guidance on physical distancing. A later email from U of T revealed that there would be no capacity limits in classrooms. “Ontario universities remain in step 3 of the provincial reopening framework with some allowed exemptions for essential activities such as teaching in indoor instructional spaces,” the email reads.

What the scientists are saying

A significant part of the discussion during the panel centered on the idea of layering different measures of combating the virus — things like masks, distancing, vaccines, and ventilation. Since each individual layer is imperfect and might have holes, the more layers that are implemented, the safer everyone is. The scientists called it a “swiss cheese model.”

Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at U of T and an expert on ventilation and indoor air quality, added that while it’s important to have many layers of protection, it’s also important to pay attention to the issue of ‘layer bypass.’ “We can, for example, just pay a lot of attention to classrooms. [But] there are, of course, many other spaces where transmission can occur,” he said. So even if classrooms are well covered, the effects might be negated by transmission occurring in between classes in crowded buildings.

David Fisman, professor of epidemiology at the DLSPH and former member of the Ontario Science Table, said that “we’re headed for a grim fall,” explaining that while Ontario is not in an extreme situation at the moment, there is some cause for concern. Data trends show a slow exponential growth in the number of cases, likely spurred by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus.

There have been many studies and reports on the fact that the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is airborne, including a review article by Fisman and his colleagues. Similarly to Siegel, Fisman said that his main concern with safety on U of T’s campuses is about capacity limits and ventilation.

In an interview with The Varsity, Siegel said that the discussion on whether or not there should be capacity limits in classrooms is “ridiculous.” He said that “the whole idea of two metres is very bogus. I want everyone to understand that the further [people are from each other] the better.” He noted that by not enforcing capacity limits in classrooms, we’re essentially giving up on implementing distancing.

As Siegel pointed out, vaccines can’t be 100 per cent effective. Additionally, there is wide variation in the quality of masks and how effectively people wear them and even ventilators and air filters might not perform ideally in different classroom environments. Many participants in the panel discussion emphasized the importance of having many layers of safety measures.

So what lies ahead?

While the scientists criticized the university’s approach to reopening, they also provided an extensive health and safety checklist that they say the university must adhere to, at a minimum, to reopen safely. It covers some of the points of weakness in U of T’s current reopening plan that were discussed in the panel.

The points include preparing spaces to address the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, being proactive and transparent about sharing information with the community and student unions, and strongly encouraging everyone at the university to get vaccinated, while still recognizing that vaccines are only one small aspect of the larger effort to protect everyone from the virus.

“I think we need to look after one another [and] look after our community,” said Fisman.