As per U of T’s most recent update regarding COVID-19 safety on campus, the fall semester will proceed in a mostly in-person fashion. While students living in residences must be fully vaccinated, with at least one booster shot, the university has suspended its general vaccine and mask requirements since May 1 and July 1, respectively.

In July, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, confirmed that the province had entered a seventh wave of COVID-19 infections. Ontario had lifted its mask mandate the previous month; however, given the rising COVID-19 case count, Moore cautioned that the province might reinstate the mandate in the fall if the health care system becomes too burdened during the seventh wave. 

In August, Moore announced that the province’s seventh wave had peaked and that he anticipates a milder fall wave now than he had previously expected. 

The University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), alongside other unions, has been advocating for additional COVID-19 measures since the beginning of the pandemic. In August 2021, the university and the UTFA signed a COVID-19 Letter of Understanding (LOU). The UTFA had drafted the LOU to call on the university to ensure the health and safety of staff and faculty during the pandemic. The LOU outlines expectations of in-person and hybrid work environments agreed on by both sides. 

Most recently, the UTFA called on the university to reinstate a mask mandate. The association launched a petition in May that has since garnered over 2,650 signatures. 

The petition was launched in collaboration with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 (CUPE 3902) — the labour union representing contract academic workers at U of T — and United Steelworkers, Local 1998 — the labour union representing administrative and technical workers at U of T, Victoria College, St. Michael’s College, and U of T Schools.

UTFA concerns

In an email to The Varsity, the UTFA expanded on its concerns with the university’s current COVID-19 safety policy. 

“To enable in-person activity to proceed as safely as possible, UTFA has continued to press the Administration to reinstate its mask mandate,” wrote a UTFA representative.

While the UTFA launched the petition in May, it did so with the intention of advocating for the reinstatement of the mask mandate for as long as public health experts recommend. The UTFA wrote, “UTFA’s expert public health advisors have recommended that the mask requirement be extended until it is no longer necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Furthermore, the association launched the petition in response to faculty members’ concerns about U of T’s pausing of various COVID-19 preventative measures. 

The UTFA representative added, “Masks are highly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19… Given the ongoing seventh wave of COVID-19, [our] public health experts continue to strongly support the extension of masking requirements.”

In an email to The Varsity, CUPE 3902 President Amy Conwell echoed the UTFA’s reasoning: “Mask-wearing is an important and necessary measure to prevent the transmission of COVID-19… Mask-wearing protects both the mask-wearer and the community from infection.” 

The Government of Canada attests to the importance of masks. According to its website on COVID-19 mask use, masks are an effective means of preventing oneself from getting COVID-19 and from spreading COVID-19. It emphasizes mask use in crowded or poorly ventilated settings and in the presence of individuals at a higher risk of illness. 

However, Ontario will not be enforcing a mask mandate in public schools this fall.

University response

In a written statement to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson shared U of T’s response to the UTFA’s petition. 

In the statement, the U of T spokesperson explained that, while the UTFA never formally presented the petition to university administration, the administration was aware of the petition. The UTFA did, however, issue a public letter in June. 

The U of T spokesperson wrote, “The University is in regular contact with various experts and groups throughout the university community on COVID-19 and other concerns.”

The U of T spokesperson did not share any current plans to reinstate the mask mandate, but assured that “the University will continue to monitor public health conditions and guidance and adjust [its] response as needed.” 

Additionally, the U of T spokesperson wrote that the university will update the U of T community on any modifications to its COVID-19 safety measures. 

Student union concerns

In an email to The Varsity, Michael Sobowale, the president of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), shared the union’s stance on the university’s COVID-19 safety measures. 

Sobowale asserted that the SCSU agrees that “more considerations and more policies should be put in place” to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on U of T campuses. 

“In terms of the return to campus, we are still asking the university to put in place more options and safer measures so students can feel safer when they are on campus and not anxious,” wrote Sobowale.

Sobowale elaborated on the SCSU’s COVID-19 safety precautions for its in-person orientation activities. The union plans to provide hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes to attendees and requests that all attendees provide their contact information for COVID-19 contact tracing, should the need arise. 

In an email to The Varsity, Maëlis Barre, the president of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), discussed the union’s ongoing monitoring of public health and safety circumstances. Barre explained that the union, informed by its observation of public health and safety, is prepared to lobby the university to implement “faster and firmer [COVID-19 safety] measures.” 

However, Barre believes it is the union’s responsibility to honour the requests of its community: “Through consultations and conversations with our members in the past 6 months, we have been communicated that the student body is in dire need of community building and in-person events… thus we are back to fully in-person or hybrid activities.”

Barre also verified that the UTMSU is not mandating masks at its in-person orientation, but continues to encourage students to employ any methods of protecting themselves that they feel comfortable with, including wearing masks and social distancing. 

Western University, Seneca College, and Ontario Tech University are among the postsecondary institutions that will maintain their mask mandates into the fall semester. Western University and Seneca College will also maintain their vaccine requirements.