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Editorial: What now? U of T, COVID, and the year ahead

With the return to in-person learning, U of T needs to be more transparent about its COVID-19 plan
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JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY
JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY

This September, for the first time since the 2019–2020 academic year, U of T’s three campuses have been alive with activity. The libraries are crowded and the food truck lines are long. It’s a wonderful sight to see.

Two weeks ago, at the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s clubs fair, we were among the dozens of clubs tabling along Devonshire Place. Some of the students passing through were wide-eyed first years in search of a community on campus; others were upper years, saying “hi” to classmates that they’d only met online. After two years of virtual orientations and Zoom clubs fairs, the opportunity to share that afternoon with over 10,000 other students was precious.

U of T students — including those of us at The Varsity — are experiencing a long-awaited return to full participation in university life. That return is certainly something to celebrate. 

But this September also marks the first school year since the beginning of the pandemic in which U of T is not requiring community members to wear a mask in public spaces. The university, which still officially remains a “mask-friendly” environment, lifted its mask mandate on July 1 — not long after suspending other protective measures like UCheck and vaccination requirements. In April, our editorial board argued that “the university acknowledges the effectiveness of these policies and has the infrastructure to continue them, but is still removing them nonetheless.” 

We’re not here to comment on the end of the mask mandate. We’ve already done that. Now, we’re calling for more transparency from U of T. The head of the World Health Organization may believe that the end of the COVID-19 global pandemic is “in sight,” but according to Colin Furness of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Canada’s lack of COVID-19 data makes it difficult to assess the situation. The same is true at U of T: the absence of both broad regulations and up-to-date information has obscured the COVID situation on campus.  

That matters because, as this institution takes back its pandemic safety measures, it is passing the responsibility of ensuring COVID safety to community members. All of us — students, staff and faculty alike — are now tasked with navigating a full return to in-person activities with very little information. The state of the pandemic has changed a lot in the past year, which means we’re all going to be reevaluating what feels safe for us. But that means it’s more important than ever that U of T give us the information required to make those decisions properly for ourselves.

What’s U of T’s COVID-19 plan?

U of T hasn’t left us completely in the dark about its COVID-19 plan. In fact, to address the risk that COVID-19 still poses to the return to in-person campus life, the university has implemented and publicized a multi-part COVID-19 safety plan.   

The primary line of defence that U of T is pushing in its safety plan is the adapted ventilation system. In anticipation of the return to in-person learning last year, the university installed MERV-13 filters, which remove 85 per cent of COVID-19 particles from the air, in centralized Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) units across its campuses. U of T has specifically emphasized increased ventilation in classrooms, where it says that it aims to update its ventilation systems to match the standard used in health-care settings. 

According to the Facilities & Services website, U of T has installed centralized ventilation in all buildings at UTSC and UTM. At UTSG, U of T has not yet installed any centralized ventilation in 23 out of 107 buildings listed on the webpage — not including any buildings associated with the federated colleges.

Still, the details of how this system is maintained remain shrouded in mystery. On its Facilities and Services page, U of T writes that it “regularly [maintains] HVAC systems on all [its] campuses.” This vague statement lacks specific standards that people could use to hold U of T accountable. 

U of T could have included specific details of HVAC operations and maintenance in its COVID-19 statements. For instance, York University’s Building Automation System sends email alerts to on-call and supervisory staff when an air handler stops functioning properly, triggering an immediate remote fix or an on-site visit. That information is available on York’s Facilities Services website, along with information about all of its ventilation systems and how they are used.

Our university could make details like these easier to access and read — but it hasn’t. Now that we’ve begun a school year where students are responsible for their own risk assessment, it’s more important than ever that U of T is clear about what it’s doing.

What else are we missing?

U of T’s previous track record of handling COVID-19 indicates that the university may be ill-equipped to deal with a full return to in-person learning. Especially now that the mask mandate has been lifted, the university is missing important parts of its pandemic management toolkit.

For one, losing the mask mandate doesn’t have to mean losing masking guidelines. Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) made a similar decision to U of T’s by suspending its mask mandate starting June 1. Crucially, however, TMU has continued to provide students and faculty with detailed and readable recommendations about when and where it’s most useful to wear a mask. In contrast, U of T has simply stated that masking is “strongly encouraged” in crowded indoor spaces, and asks students to “respect each other’s decisions, comfort levels, and health needs.”

There’s also the lack of COVID-19 tracking information. On January 3, Toronto Public Health and Peel Public Health began prioritizing case and contact management for only the highest-risk settings. As a result, U of T stopped receiving official Public Health notifications of positive COVID-19 cases on campus, so it paused reporting on its COVID-19 case tracking dashboard.

But U of T could still inform students about case counts on campus by setting up its own tracking systems. For example, the University of Guelph (U of G) requires students and employees to fill out a form to inform the university when they have symptoms of COVID-19. 

In addition, since October 2020, researchers at U of G have been testing wastewater from on-campus residences for RNA fragments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This process gives U of G information on the spread of the virus before its community members show symptoms. According to U of T’s website, the university did at one point test wastewater from large student residences, but phased out the practice in May 2022.

We’ve heard scattered reports within our own social circles of COVID-19 cropping up among first years since orientation. We know that there are contact tracing systems at some residences at U of T. But there’s no centralized information on whether those systems are universal; plus, there’s no way to know how much COVID is actually spreading unless the university becomes more transparent and proactive about reporting the COVID-19 case count on campus.

What it all comes down to is that we’re not necessarily asking that U of T implement any of these specific safety measures. We simply want more from our university — more communication, more transparency, more data, and more explicit commitments to keeping everyone safe.

Looking forward

For the last two years, The Varsity has kept the student body up to date on the COVID-19 situation at U of T, including the mask mandate and the transition to online learning. We’d like to be able to continue doing that. As students, we’ve all got different factors to weigh when making decisions about COVID-19. Some students are still immunocompromised, living in multi-generational households, or worried about Long COVID. To make health decisions as university students in 2022, we’re going to need full transparency from the university. 

Here at The Varsity, we have decided not to lift our office mask requirement. In the early days of the pandemic, we followed U of T’s lead; now, U of T may have ended many of its safety measures, but we have chosen to continue prioritizing community care. 

It’s difficult for student leaders to make decisions like these — whether to keep mask mandates, whether it’s safe to hold large gatherings — in the absence of reliable, up-to-date information. But we still have to try; as we come out of a global pandemic, we don’t have the option to ignore our responsibilities to the health and safety of our community. 

With that in mind, the least U of T can do for all of us is give us as much information as it can about COVID-19 on campus, so that as we return to campus, we can make informed decisions about our safety. 

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester.