Six University of Toronto faculty and staff unions have launched a petition to protest against the school’s reopening plan because they say it fails to guarantee a safe return to work this fall.
“Until the safety of students and workers can be guaranteed, in-person learning, teaching, librarianship, and other academic work should be paused,” the petition reads.
The petition, signed by more than 2,800 people, calls on the school to follow the lead of other Canadian universities and pause most “in-person teaching” in favour of online learning. It notes that some activities, such as lab work, music instruction and most service work, can happen only in person.
But it adds: “…those of us who can work remotely should stay home to protect the entire campus community.”
According to University of Toronto president Meric Gertler, more than 90 per cent of undergraduate course offerings will feature online delivery.
“At the same time, many of these same courses will offer a significant in-person element — either through ‘dual delivery’ mode (in which students have the option of enrolling online or in-person), or through in-person courses, labs, tutorials or experiential learning placements,” Gertler writes in a message on the university’s website.
“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 adds: “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.”
Terezia Zoric, president of the University of Toronto’s faculty association, said she is worried about close contact, closed spaces and crowds if students, staff and faculty return to campus.
“We don’t think it’s possible to mitigate the risk or eliminate the risk sufficiently,” she said.
While the school has said no instructors will be forced to teach in person if they feel unsafe, Zoric said some believe they do not have a choice.
Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said he is worried about dorms, poor ventilation and potential transmission that could occur.
“if we’re going to amplify spread on campus, we’re potentially not only damaging our own community, but the wider Toronto community,” Fisman said.
Safety measures to be in place, U of T says
Heather Boon, U of T’s vice-provost for faculty and academic life, said safety measures will be in place and they will include physical distancing markers, new ventilation and masks to be made mandatory in the classroom.
“We’re not only going to closely follow the city and provincial health guidelines for safety and health, but we’re also going to exceed them,” Boon said.
The petition is signed by University of Toronto contract academic workers, faculty and librarians, administrative and technical workers, library workers, service workers and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education graduate assistants.
“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?” the petition asks.
“We believe that in-person teaching is normally the most effective, valuable form of pedagogy; however, it cannot 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 notes that the university has not consulted unions representing front-line academic workers about its reopening plan, it suggests that its COVID-19 workplace guidelines are based on outdated information about viral transmission, and it says it is not clear whether masks will indeed be mandatory in classrooms.