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Students discuss hybrid options, vaccine mandate at UTSU COVID-19 town hall

Uncertainty continues over the university’s plans for winter 2022
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IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) held a town hall on January 14, led by UTSU President Alexa Ballis and Vice-President, Public and University Affairs Omar Gharbiyeh, to discuss students’ concerns about the winter 2022 semester. Students reflected on U of T’s response to the pandemic in fall 2021 and discussed their concerns for the winter semester. 

U of T held in-person courses in the fall, but cancelled exams and delayed in-person classes until January 31 as a response to the spread of the Omicron variant. 

Future in-person safety measures 

Some students are concerned about the effectiveness of UCheck in preventing COVID-19 outbreaks on campus, considering that the system relies on self-assessment. For the winter term, they expect a more reliable system that can ensure safety if classes are held in person. 

The university’s vaccination policy was discussed in detail at the town hall. U of T currently requires students and staff to provide proof of vaccination before coming to campus. 

While they recognized the importance of the vaccine, many attendees said that they considered it unfair for the university to deny enrolment to unvaccinated students, especially those with medical or religious impediments. In particular, some students noted that unvaccinated students without an exemption will be unenrolled from their courses if they do not show proof of vaccination, even if they are studying entirely online. 

One of the affected students, Kuan-Te Lu, said, “Unfortunately, the school’s one-size-fits-all vaccine policy does not take into consideration people with my condition. So unless I play Russian roulette with the first shot, and see if I get myocarditis or not, I am denied an education. This is an accessibility issue.”

U of T has a vaccine exemption policy to recognize students who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons. However, medical exemptions require students to prove they’ve had reactions to the first dose of the vaccine. 

Hybrid learning for winter 2022

The majority of students who spoke at the town hall considered hybrid learning the best option moving forward.

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Toronto and at U of T, many students said they are fearful of going back to in-person learning. International students who have returned home or students who live with individuals at high risk of developing COVID-19 complications might also not be able to attend in-person classes. 

One student shared a petition that asks U of T to shift the winter semester to an online or hybrid format, which has garnered over 2,300 signatures as of January 16. 

Ballis confirmed that the UTSU will continue to advocate for hybrid learning as the best way to accommodate students’ needs and ensure student safety. 

Uncertainty for the new year

Overall, students were discontent with the university’s cancellation of exams at the end of the fall semester. While some admitted that they benefitted from the cancellation of exams, others claimed they were hurt by the redistribution of marks and wanted to prevent the university from doing anything similar in the future.

U of T’s most recent update on December 15 has also created enormous uncertainty among students, with students expressing anger at the lack of communication from the university on how the winter semester will be delivered. During the town hall, many students asked the UTSU to pressure the university for a more concrete plan.

International students also spoke out at the town hall, discussing how they are affected by uncertainty over the winter semester. Many said that they or their friends are waiting for an announcement from U of T to decide whether or not they should come to Toronto and worry about accommodations, financial burdens, travel bans, and other issues. In the meantime, they face an increase in university fees, even though they are not able to make use of many university facilities. 

Gharbiyeh guaranteed that international students are currently a priority for the UTSU and said that the union will continue to advocate for them.