University of Toronto

Petition argues University of Toronto not safe to reopen for in-person classes this fall

Thousands have signed a petition asking the University of Toronto [U of T] to pause in-person learning, teaching, librarianship, and other academic work until the safety of students and workers can be guaranteed.

The petition, which has over 2,000 signatures as of publishing, has been signed by six U of T staff and faculty unions representing education workers, faculty, administrative and technical workers, service workers, and library workers employed in the University’s central library system.

 

 

The petition comes after U of T’s plan for reopening was released. The UTogether 2020: A Roadmap for the University of Toronto sets out the processes and protocols the university is following as they plan for September and beyond. According to a letter written by U of T president Meric S. Gertler, now that course offerings have been posted for the fall, they have a clearer idea of what September will look like.

“While the situation will, of necessity, vary from one division or campus to another, and may continue to evolve, the aggregate picture is consistent with our earlier commitment to offer a rich mix of learning opportunities and formats, combining online and in-person modes of delivery,” Gertler stated.

He added that “more than 90 per cent” of undergraduate course offerings will feature online delivery, and at the same time, many of these same courses will offer a “significant in-person element”, either through dual delivery mode (where students will have the option of enrolling online or in-person), or through in-person courses, labs, tutorials or experiential learning placements.

“At this stage we can report that, overall, at least one-third of our undergraduate courses will have an in-person component. In some divisions, more than half of course offerings will include an in-person option,” Gertler said. “We anticipate that a higher proportion of our graduate courses will be offered in person, owing to their generally smaller size, but aggregate information on this activity is still being collected.”

The petition states that they don’t have confidence in U of T’s plan, noting that U of T’s plan for reopening was recently released as the “COVID-19 General Workplace Guideline” prepared by the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

“This U of T guideline is based on outdated information about COVID-19,” the petition states. “It is premised on the idea that the virus spreads primarily via contact and close-range droplet transmission; however, mounting evidence suggests that the virus may also be spread via airborne transmission.”

The petition also notes that it’s still not clear whether mask-wearing in classrooms will be required, and that the plan fails to address key questions about health and safety, including:

  • Why is the University pushing ahead with in-person education in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis, especially when it will put the health and safety of students, tutorial leaders, contract instructors, faculty, library workers, staff, and the entire campus community at risk?
  • How is it possible to adequately mitigate the risks of the ‘three Cs’ of COVID-19 spread — ‘close contact’, ‘closed spaces’, and ‘crowds’ — in a regular classroom setting?
  • Why is U of T out of step with other GTA and Ontario universities that have opted to offer Fall courses solely (or mostly) online?

“Given these outstanding questions, we are calling on the U of T to ’take a pause’ on most in-person teaching and other academic work for the Fall 2020 semester in favour of online-only teaching,” the petition states.

Many have taken to social media to show their support for the petition, while other commeters have shared concerns that the university is putting economic considerations before safety.

 

 

The petition is also calling on U of T to meaningfully consult with representatives of frontline academic workers (e.g., unions, the faculty association, student groups, and health and safety committees).

“Unions and Associations representing frontline academic workers, our Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs), and the University’s own experts at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health have repeatedly requested a joint decision-making process that involves workers and students. That has not happened. U of T has not meaningfully consulted us on its plan for reopening.”

The petition states that a “Hyflex” or “Dual-Delivery” model of teaching that the Faculty of Arts and Science is encouraging for the fall creates a situation in which instructors must weigh personal risk against risk to their tutorial leaders, as they are asked to organize both online and in-person components for their courses.

“Of course, not all work can be performed remotely. For example, work in certain labs, some music instruction, and most service work can only happen in-person. However, recognizing that some campus workers have been given little choice but to return to in-person work, those of us who can work remotely should stay home to protect the entire campus community,” the petition notes.

Although the signed unions agree that in-person teaching is “normally the most effective, valuable form of pedagogy,” it can’t come at the cost of community safety.

“Until the time that community safety can be ensured, we must perform whatever work we can remotely,” the petition ends.

Article exclusive to TRNTO