Despite surges in respiratory illnesses and calls for masking from provincial leaders, U of T has not had a mask mandate since July 1. An immunocompromised student and a faculty member with disability spoke to The Varsity about their experiences navigating a mostly maskless return to in-person activities this fall. 

Provincial situation

On November 14, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore “strongly” recommended that people wear masks in all indoor public settings, as Ontario’s health-care system continues to face “extraordinary pressures.” These pressures are due to the “triple threat” of COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus — a common respiratory virus that infects the lungs and airways — currently circulating across the province.

While Moore stopped short of reinstating a provincial mask mandate, many, including the president of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and members of the Toronto Board of Health, are calling for the reinstatement of mask mandates to curb the rise in respiratory illnesses among vulnerable populations.

Lack of mask mandates causes “great anxiety”

Two members of U of T’s disabled community — a student and a faculty member — spoke to The Varsity about the difficulties they have faced since the university lifted the mask mandate. Both have already gotten sick over the course of the fall term, and they recognize that they are at higher risk for death and hospitalization from COVID-19. 

Karuna, an undergraduate student, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease last January. She asked that The Varsity not publish her last name, because she fears employment discrimination from disclosing her condition. She currently takes immunosuppressants, which lower her immune system’s ability to fight off infections such as COVID-19. Last winter, Karuna was hospitalized after she caught the flu.

In an interview with The Varsity, Karuna said that navigating this fall term has caused her “great anxiety.” She “seriously considered” transferring schools or taking a break from her studies. “It felt as if I had to decide between my education and my health,” she said.

Her rheumatologist recommended that Karuna not attend in-person classes, in part because of U of T’s lack of mask mandates. As a result, Karuna individually reached out to professors in order to take independent studies courses, which enabled her to attend classes remotely.

Karuna still attends one in-person course this fall. She initially deemed the class “safe” to attend in person because there are only two other students in the course. However, despite always wearing a medical-grade mask to class, she said that she likely caught a cold from one of her classmates, neither of whom wore masks. 

“I couldn’t attend that class for two weeks, because I had such a flare-up of my autoimmune condition,” she said.

According to a study by Public Health Ontario, mask mandates increase mask-wearing adherence and reduce COVID-19 transmission. However, the provincial government opted to lift most province-wide mask mandates in June, and the university followed close behind. 

“Oftentimes, when policies are made, people who are immunocompromised or disabled… their needs tend to be ignored,” said Rain Chan, the campaigns coordinator for Students for Barrier Free Access — a U of T-based nonprofit organization that advocates for disability justice — in an interview with The Varsity

Chan said that, since the university lifted mask mandates, their clients with disabilities and compromised immune systems have been especially concerned about returning to in-person classes. With this, they expect that immunocompromised people will attend classes less frequently.

Although vaccines can offer a layer of protection to most people, some individuals — including people with a history of severe allergic reactions to vaccine components and those receiving immunosuppressing therapy — cannot receive the COVID vaccine. 

Faculty member now on sick leave due to lingering COVID-19 symptoms

A.W. Peet — a professor at U of T’s Department of Physics — said that they got COVID-19 for the first time within a week of returning to in-person activities this fall. Despite not being immunocompromised, Peet already had other chronic health issues prior to contracting COVID-19.

When The Varsity spoke to Peet on October 14 — around five weeks after they had first tested positive — Peet was experiencing “heavy brain fog,” which undermined their cognition, concentration, short-term memory, and long-term memory recall. They were also experiencing “a lot of fatigue” — particularly, cognitive stress— which made it difficult for them to read and watch videos.

Peet said that they could only work for around three hours each day because of these functional impairments. “I’ve had to press pause on basically all my research activities in order to be able to cover the teaching,” they said.

On October 27, Peet tweeted that they were now officially on sick leave from the university due to their numerous “disabling” post-COVID symptoms. 

Peet believes that they likely got infected on campus. They said that they followed COVID-19 protocols “extremely careful[ly]” and that officials from Toronto Public Health told Peet that they were “doing everything right to minimize risk.” However, Peet said that the majority of the people they interacted with at meetings and in classes at U of T were not wearing masks.

“It’s too bad… [that we] pretend that all responsibility is just [for] personal [benefits],” Peet said. “We have an ethical obligation to protect everybody else and ourselves from COVID. Because [the virus] has proven to be… causing a great deal of distress to people, killing a lot of people…  disabling a lot of people [in the long-term].”

Both Karuna and Peet recognize that they are at higher risk for death and hospitalization from COVID-19, since — according to the Government of Canada — people who are older, have chronic medical conditions, and have weakened immune systems are at greater risk for severe disease or outcomes from the coronavirus.

Mask mandates at U of T

Currently, U of T’s tri-campus mask policy allows people to choose whether or not they wear a mask. In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson reiterated that U of T “strongly” encourages people to wear medical masks in “high-density indoor spaces” where physical distancing is not possible. 

“While members of our community can request [that] those around them wear masks, those that choose not to comply with this request should not be disadvantaged or disciplined,” the spokesperson clarified. “We ask everyone to respect each other’s decisions, comfort levels and health needs.” Under this policy, even though they knowingly have comorbidities, Peet could not mandate that students in their classes wear masks. 

In an email to The Varsity, University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) President Terezia Zorić highlighted the importance of having a mask mandate at U of T. Without a mask mandate, many classrooms, hallways, and common areas on campus are filled with unmasked people. With high case counts in the GTA, this means the risk of exposure is high.”

UTFA has been unwavering in both public and direct advocacy on mask mandates,” Zorić added. In May, the UTFA — in collaboration with other labour unions at U of T — launched a petition to reinstate the mask mandate that has since garnered over 2,700 signatures. 

However, Zorić claims that the U of T administration has “severely” limited their communications with the UTFA on important health issues. “We had been meeting every two weeks, but now they are willing to meet about health and safety only four times per year,” she wrote. The U of T spokesperson did not respond to The Varsity’s query regarding the university’s frequency of meetings with the UTFA.

On September 30, U of T President Meric Gertler told The Varsity, “We will bring back masks or vaccine mandates if, or when, conditions change… At the moment, we’re worried that if we were to bring a mandate in now, there will be a lot of noncompliance.”

Recently, the University of Waterloo reinstated an indoor mask mandate, and Western University continues to maintain its indoor mask mandate. However, Western’s official student newspaper, The Western Gazette, has found that many community members do not follow the mandate, with reporters documenting students not wearing masks or wearing masks improperly in packed classrooms.

We are in regular contact with various experts and groups throughout the university community on COVID-19 and other concerns,” the U of T spokesperson concluded.