Students at UTM have consistently been advocating for a hybrid semester throughout the year. Many students have expressed concerns about transportation, housing, and safety should classes return to an in-person format. In October, a UTM student started a petition that garnered over 3,400 signatures calling for UTM to keep the fall semester partially or fully online. The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) also organized an email zap in the fall to campaign for a hybrid winter semester.
After a call from Instagram account @transparentutmsu — which has over 1,000 followers — UTM students have taken to social media to express their discontent as a return to in-person classes still looms at UTM. Currently, a return to in-person classes is scheduled for the beginning of February.
Instagram account @transparentutmsu has returned from its hiatus to advocate for a hybrid learning experience for the winter 2022 semester at UTM in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Most courses at UTM are running remotely until January 31, though some courses have returned to in-person already. Rhonda McEwen, UTM’s vice-principal, academic and dean has said that announcements will be made early next week with more information on course delivery at UTM.
Shen Fernando, a third-year political science student, started posting on this account last year sharing claims that the UTMSU executive candidates were violating the union’s election procedure code for unsolicited campaigning. Fernando initially retired the account in spring of 2021 after the election was over, believing that the purpose of the account had been resolved.
In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he began seeing people posting on social media platforms recently, wondering why the account disappeared at a time when students were dealing with what he sees as another problem at UTM: the lack of hybrid learning options available to students during the pandemic.
Fernando explained that he is immunocompromised and, when he personally reached out to UTM administration asking for accommodations, he was sent to Accessibility Services, which he felt was not able to accommodate him fully.
Fernando explained that some of the co-admins of the account refused to return since they would be targeting the UTM administration, which he said was more out of their comfort zone than when they were previously targeting the UTMSU.
“If you have concerns, if you feel as though your rights as a student are being violated, you can take things into your own hands,” Fernando added.
He explained that one of the more encouraging actions @transparentutmsu has managed to achieve is the shift in UTM’s Google reviews. Supporters who left reviews under the hashtag #UTMDivided were able to bring the UTM’s Google page’s 4.6 star review down to 4.5 in a day. “We weren’t trying to get the Google reviews down to one star or anything like that, those actions were more so to show students that you have opportunities to take things into your own hands,” he said.
Some of the next steps he plans for the account include the publication of a series of videos advocating for different student rights, including the addition of hybrid learning options for the fall 2022 term, accommodations for students with disabilities, and bringing back UTM varsity sports after they were cancelled earlier this year. Fernando also plans to advocate against the approval of the controversial company Aramark as a new food provider at UTM.
“If nobody advocates for the students — if nobody’s here to bring up these concerns — then nothing will change,” said Fernando. “Bring on the conflict.”
Fernando said he’d been asked multiple times if he planned to run for UTMSU president or for any other executive position. “The moment that we try to do something like that, @transparentutmsu might not be the same as it is, and we want to keep it intact. We want to keep it as it is right now, because it is effective and it is working for students.”
Mitra Yakubi, president of the UTMSU, wrote in an email to The Varsity, “I welcome and encourage members to take active roles in advocating for a free and accessible post-secondary education.”
She explained that, as a union, the UTMSU is accountable to all of its members and that it will continue its due diligence in supporting members’ needs. She added that there are “many avenues” for members to seek support.
Yakubi wrote that the next UTMSU commission meeting is on January 17 from 4:00–6:00 pm, and she hopes members will utilize the space to discuss how students can “collectively lobby the university for accessibility accommodations and a safe return.”