The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) issued an open letter on January 25 regarding the university’s announcement of a return to in-person learning in February. It criticized the university for the lateness of its plans, and provided recommendations for how it could better cater to student needs this semester. 

Open letter

In the letter, the UTSU recognized the university’s recent measures to keep its community safe in the wake of a rise in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant. It also, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of an earlier and clearer announcement regarding the university’s plans. The union argued that rises in cases of COVID-19 have become more predictable, and that students have faced hardships as a result of the unpreparedness of university administration.

In the statement, the UTSU noted that over the past few months, students have expressed they were unhappy with the delayed announcement, and that the delay has impacted their mental health, finances, travel plans, residence applications, and academics. The statement specifically cited student petitions, as well as a town hall that the union held on January 14, where students discussed their concerns about the effectiveness of the UCheck program and their desire for hybrid options. 

The UTSU provided U of T with a series of recommendations in response to the university’s plans to fully return many courses to an in-person format after reading week and calls from students for hybrid or online options. The union advocated for clearer and more predictable plans to be announced further in advance in the future, so that students have more time to adjust. Moreover, it asked for extensions in a number of sessional and financial deadlines, including the tuition and ancillary fees refund deadline.

The letter also demands that U of T remedy the harmful impact of cancelling fall 2021 in-person exams by allowing students to drop courses or petition for deferrals for assignments in courses from the fall semester. It also suggested the university commit to keeping winter 2022 exams online to prevent a repeat of such a cancellation. 

Furthermore, the UTSU asked for support in a safe return to campus for students and staff, by increasing COVID-19 testing and providing protective equipment. It also noted that students find the current UCheck system difficult to navigate, so it recommended the university refine and clarify its reporting system.

Additionally, the letter stated that U of T should have a plan to accommodate students who can’t attend classes due to personal issues or COVID-19 infection, and that the university should provide students with more spaces to speak on the university’s safety measures. 

U of T’s response

In an email to The Varsity, Dr. Salvatore Spadafora, special advisor to U of T president and provost on COVID-19, and Sandy Welsh, vice-provost students, stated that many students are “looking forward to a return to in-person learning.” They stressed that the university’s priority is a safe return to campus.

Spadafora and Welsh explained that most courses would gradually return to an in-person format during February, and that students who are abroad are expected to return to attend classes. “There may be some courses where an online option is available, but this is not guaranteed,” they added.

Additionally, Spadafora and Welsh pointed out that other Ontario universities are also going back in person, as public health measures will become more relaxed and health experts affirm that the Omicron wave has passed its peak. 

To ensure the safety of the community, students will be required to wear masks indoors, and the university is working on making medical masks available to the community. More information on that will be available through UTogether, the university’s guide for its policies for the 2021–2022 academic year. While rapid test kits are still scarce in Ontario and the university’s rapid testing program has been put on hold, rapid testing kits will be available for those with approved vaccine exemptions. 

Broader discourse on return

Other student unions have also responded to U of T’s announcement. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union have been sending emails to the university’s administration and provincial parliament members with demands for hybrid and online options for the winter semester, as well as other additional safety measures. 

As of right now, the U of T administration has not changed its plans on account of these initiatives, although a senior UTSC administrator has told the SCSU that the university would take the email campaign more seriously if it hit 9,000 emails. 

In addition to an online alternative, the unions have been advocating for social distancing, capacity limits, a more reliable screening system, and the distribution of masks. 

The Varsity has reached out to the UTSU for comment.