As of October this year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) reports that, according to its Student Needs Survey, 72 per cent of respondents “would consider” going to class or taking an exam sick if they had already used their one allotted absence declaration U of T allows for each semester. 

The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), the UTSU, and student disability advocates have raised concerns about U of T policies that require most students to pay if they want to reschedule exams missed for illness or other emergencies. They are also hoping to pressure U of T to change its Absence Declaration policies so that students no longer need to submit a doctor’s note if they have multiple absences during the semester.

U of T policies on deferred exams

According to the U of T Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) website, students who cannot sit for an examination due to “unavoidable circumstances” must, usually within at least five business days of the exam period’s end, submit a petition to defer their exam — which means writing it at a different time.

Alongside the petition, students must also submit a personal statement outlining their reasons for missing an exam. Students must provide supporting documentation, such as a medical report or death certificate, to substantiate the claims made in their personal statement. Based on whether the faculty determines that the situation was “outside of your control,” it will either grant or reject the deferral.

As supporting documentation, the FAS website suggests that students submitting a petition for health-related issues also submit a doctor’s note or letter from their accessibility advisor. 

If their petition is granted, students must pay a deferred exam fee of $70 for one course or $140 for two or more courses in one semester before taking the deferred exams. The university “may” waive the fee for students registered with accessibility services or for students who request a deferral as a religious accommodation. 

At UTM, students who miss an exam must submit a petition with supplemental documentation within 72 hours of the originally scheduled exam time, along with a deferral fee of $72. Meanwhile, the UTSC policy requires students to submit their petitions within five business days from the exam date. The fee for deferring one exam is $72, and for two or more deferrals, the fee is $144. 

According to Alicia Abbott — a fourth-year political science and government student and president of the University of Toronto Accessibility Awareness Club (U-TAAC) — the club has never directly assisted students who had to miss an exam for a reason related to a disability. However, she wrote in an email to The Varsity that she believes the fee might lead students to avoid deferring the exam, resulting in them receiving a lower grade. 

Students who defer a FAS December 2023 exam can take the exam from February 20–23, 2024. Abbott wrote that the long length of time between the end of the course and the deferred exam period disadvantages students because the content won’t be “fresh in their mind.” Students might also lose out on additional resources generally available before exams, such as TA office hours. 

“These policies are unjustifiably punishing students with disabilities for circumstances that are out of their control,” wrote Abbott. 

The ‘Don’t invoice our illness’ campaign

In 2022, the APUS launched the ‘Don’t Invoice our Illnesses’ campaign to advocate for U of T faculties to remove the additional fees students must pay to defer an exam. In an email to The Varsity, APUS Vice-President External Shanti Dhoré wrote that the effort grew from an increased awareness about the importance of social distancing during the pandemic. Recognizing the challenges that come with being sick and isolating for illness, the association voiced its complaints about the fees to the heads of all U of T faculties. 

In a survey of over 250 students conducted by the APUS in 2022, most reported that they would attend an exam even when ill to avoid paying the fee.

Dhoré wrote that she believes it is unjust to make students who are sick on the day of an exam pay more than their peers, noting that it doesn’t match U of T’s “claimed public health principles.” On its Environmental Health and Safety page, U of T outlines that, in terms of health and safety, it “[works] with various U of T groups to ensure that buildings, classrooms, libraries and other campus properties are safe working spaces for students, faculty, and staff.”

Abbott wrote that she would like U of T to remove the deferral fee and potentially involve students in rescheduling their exams. “[Students] are better equipped than the university to determine when they will recover from their flare-up and when they would be fit to take the exam and have it still be an accurate reflection of their knowledge,” she wrote.

In 2020, U of T waived the need for doctor’s notes to support absence declarations for COVID. It has since reintroduced the need for notes. Neither the Ontario Health Insurance Plan nor the University Health Insurance Plan covers the price of sick notes for school or work, which cost $20 according to the Ontario Medical Association’s 2020 guidelines. Dhoré wrote that U of T’s decision to require supporting documentation to prove illness if they want to defer an exam was a “mistake.”

UTSU criticizes broader absence policies

At the onset of the pandemic, U of T suspended the need to provide a doctor’s note for absences from class if students experienced flu-like symptoms, instead asking them to declare an absence on ACORN using the Absence Declaration tool. 

Starting in the 2023–2024 academic year, the university restructured its policies. Now, students can only use the Absence Declaration tool once during the semester for a period of up to seven days. For other absences, they must submit a doctor’s note.

In the UTSU executive members’ October 2023 report to the Board of Directors, the UTSU called on the university to allow the students multiple uses of the Absence Declaration tool. UTSU Vice President, Public and University Affairs Aidan Thompson told The Varsity that the university changed the system without consulting the union. 

According to Thompson, limiting students to only one absence declaration per semester pushes them to attend class if they fall ill a second time, compromising their safety and the safety of those around them. If students must miss class for a second time, obtaining a doctor’s note can be expensive and unnecessarily expose physicians to illness. Thompson pointed out that burdening students to obtain this documentation goes against the university’s commitment to be “student-centred” and “[prioritize] the mental well-being of students.”

In collaboration with the Arts & Sciences Students’ Union and APUS, over the course of the semester, the UTSU has advocated for U of T to allow students to use the Absence Declaration tool and for more leniency in the verification process for exam petitions. The unions plan to release a joint statement on the subject soon. U of T has not yet responded to The Varsity’s request for comment.