On February 1, Shreya Jha and Isabella Cesari, students involved in the performing arts at U of T, published an open letter in response to the COVID-19 restrictions placed upon drama activities. The letter, which asks U of T to review the restrictions, has gathered over 120 signatures from students, alumni, and faculty. 

Ontario has introduced more flexibility on its COVID-19 guidelines with the transition to the first step of its reopening plan, which began on January 31. According to these guidelines, concert venues, theatres, and cinemas may be open with a 50 per cent capacity limit, as long as the audience shows proof of vaccination, is screened, wears masks, and remains seated. Moreover, the plan also outlines exceptions for mask use and physical distancing 

Nevertheless, campus theatre bookings are still unavailable for students. According to the letter, the university also doesn’t offer exemptions for performers, who are required to “wear masks, goggles or face shields” and stay two to three metres apart. Drama groups are also still being encouraged to have a very limited audience or none at all. 

The discrepancy between arts and sports 

In the open letter, students expressed frustration not only with the discrepancy between provincial and university rules, but also between the rules applied to arts performances and other sectors of the university, such as varsity sports. 

U of T announced an increase of in-person activities starting February 7, and some events and activities like recreational sports have since returned to in-person operation. These comply with provincial recommendations and guidelines and provide exemptions for the use of masks while doing physical exercise. 

The discrepancies between the policies have raised a deeper discussion about the general public view on the importance of arts. In an interview with The Varsity, Jha, a first-year student in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine program, said that “this is indicative of a sort of larger problematic attitude that there is towards the arts that existed before the pandemic, and unfortunately, will probably exist after — the idea that they’re extraneous [and] non essential.”

Impact on students

When expressing their concerns to the university’s administration directly, students said that they have received “little to no clarification,” and even emails that contained inaccurate information about the provincial COVID-19 guidelines. 

Consequently, the letter criticizes the lack of information accessible to students on the updated restrictions for performances. “You have to dig to find the actual relevant parts of the documents which are themselves difficult to find, at least online,” Cesari said. 

Students in arts programs, such as theatre or music, are among the most affected by these measures, especially those involved in extracurricular performing activities. Being able to practice and show their work is extremely important for these students, since it helps them acquire artistic skills and opens doors to many opportunities in the field. 

Without being able to use campus venues, groups and clubs have been encouraged to seek off-campus venues. Though this alternative has been successful for some clubs, it can be a barrier to those that lack funding to go off campus, meaning they can’t offer students the same practice opportunities. 

Despite being unable to use campus theatre venues to practice or perform, Cesari affirmed that having to keep a two-metre distance when performing is one of the greatest challenges presented by the guidelines. 

Additionally, students from other programs have also been impacted by the lack of arts events on campus. Dunc Urquhart, an Emmanuel College student, told The Varsity that they feel that the lack of arts performances has impacted U of T’s sense of community. Urquhart said that bringing performing arts back to campus would lift people’s spirits and bring them together. 

The university’s response 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson affirmed that the university is now reviewing restrictions, including those on arts performances, under the framework of updated provincial rules. They acknowledged the importance of extracurricular activities to students, and wrote that they “will have more information soon.”

In regard to the open letter, Cesari told The Varsity that her hopes are to promote a conversation between the university’s administration and students about the restrictions so that students’ voices are taken into consideration, and to achieve campus theatre restrictions that align with those promoted by the Ontario government.