For many of my peers, reading U of T’s January 19 announcement about the university’s return to in-person classes was a moment of joy and relief. When the announcement hit my inbox, however, I experienced a now very familiar moment of dread over what it will mean. 

The school’s decision represents a hasty assessment of the dangers of reopening and could put many at risk. The worst of the Omicron variant outbreak may occur before most students are back in person, but providing an online option for the rest of the semester would ease student concern and make for a safer experience.

Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, People Strategy, Equity, and Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat announced in a recent email that the university’s in-person activity would ramp up in early February. Dean of Faculty of Arts & Science Melanie Woodin announced in a separate email that for students enrolled in the faculty, all classes will have online options until February 28, at which point in-person classes will occur strictly on campus. In an email sent to all students and employees, Regehr wrote, “Our students have told us how important physical presence on campus is to them — both for their academic work and for their mental wellbeing.” 

Given my 2020–2021 online learning experience, I can attest that isolation and lack of in-person interaction can lead to depression and anxiety. I would love to interact with my peers in a class setting. Unfortunately, at least for me, returning to in-person learning in the current environment would hardly be an anxiety-free prospect. 

I have serious doubts about the university’s ability to protect us from contracting the virus. While policies in the fall term appeared to prevent serious COVID-19 spread within the university community, the Omicron variant has proven far more transmissible than previous variants, meaning last semester’s measures will likely not be enough to prevent transmission. 

The recent drops in case counts seems to be signalling an end to the shockingly infectious Omicron wave — yet a lack of COVID-19 tests may mean some cases are going unreported. This showcases the precarious situation into which U of T seems comfortable unabashedly sending its students and faculty. 

When faced with rising COVID-19 cases in fall 2020, U of T moved all classes online. Of course, it may be unfair to compare the situation last year, when many students had one or no vaccine doses, to now, when the provost cites the statistic that 99 per cent of community members are “fully vaccinated.” However, there is no reliable information about how many students have received a booster shot.

While for previous waves, two doses of mRNA vaccines have proved effective at preventing severe illness and infection in general, Omicron is more resistant to the vaccine. A recent Harvard study concluded that a third “booster” dose provides much better protection against Omicron than two doses. Two doses may still be enough to prevent severe illness, as one study indicates, but if many students have not received a booster, sending them into the Omicron wave is dangerous. 

Last semester, I observed crowded and poorly ventilated lecture halls filled with students wearing inadequate masks. Lectures can host hundreds of people. Many lectures take place in older buildings that may have poor ventilation, leaving potential for the accumulation of airborne droplets that spread the virus. For example, I have lectures in Alumni Hall, a large room with no windows that hosts a capacity of 284 students. My class is usually attended by approximately 80 students, with only a small chair in between any two people. I do not feel safe being in such a room for over two hours, given those conditions. 

While most students I see in lectures wear masks, some of their masks are ineffective. A December 15 Toronto Public Health brief says that for masks to be most effective, they should not have fewer than three layers. This means that if you were thinking of wearing a one- or two-layer cloth mask or a scarf-style mask, you should leave those at home.

Last semester, I often walked into class and saw some students wearing simply inadequate masks. Knowing these might be the conditions I return to in February scares me. I hope U of T will be providing N95 or medical masks and advocating for their use over one- or two-layer cloth masks.

Students may see the dangers of contracting this variant and conclude they will take the risk if it means they get to see their friends. After all, this variant is mild, right? The Omicron variant indeed results in lower rates of serious outcomes than prior variants. Public Health Ontario reported that the risk of hospitalization or death for Omicron cases was 59 per cent lower than for Delta cases. 

However, this does not paint a complete picture of the risks of Omicron. As with all COVID-19 strains, people with chronic medical conditions or those who are immunocompromised are at greater risk, according to the national government. 

Even people without medical conditions can develop ‘long COVID.’ Officially labelled ‘post COVID-19 condition’ by the Canadian government, long COVID involves long-term symptoms that can occur after even mild or asymptomatic infection. The Canadian government also clarifies symptoms, which can include fatigue, memory problems, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, anxiety and depression, among other conditions. This is a serious risk that even young, healthy, vaccinated people should consider. 

Despite our best efforts, members of the U of T community will contract COVID-19. Many of our peers likely have COVID-19 right now. Eliminating online options for classes means students who contract COVID-19 will have no choice but to show up on campus, potentially infecting the community.

I ask administrators for some leniency in requiring Faculty of Arts & Science students to return to in-person classes on February 28. Providing quality online options for the rest of the semester would allow students who are uncomfortable returning to in-person class, and those with COVID-19, a safe alternative that still allows them to succeed academically.

As for students, I urge you to research the Omicron variant and determine the risks you are taking in returning to class. If you are uncomfortable, express your concerns. If you choose to return to in-person learning, please prepare yourself as best as possible with a booster dose and an N95 or medical mask. Online learning sucks, but it’s worth it to save lives.

Jacob Lefkowitz Brooks is a second-year philosophy student at New College.