U of T’s Reopening Plan is NOT Safe Enough. We Need to Take Fall 2020 Online.

U of T’s Reopening Plan is NOT Safe Enough. We Need to Take Fall 2020 Online.

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The University of Toronto’s reopening plan does not guarantee a safe return to in-person work. Until the safety of students and workers can be guaranteed, in-person learning, teaching, librarianship, and other academic work should be paused. 

U of T’s 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 even 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. We are also calling on U of T to meaningfully consult with representatives of frontline academic workers: unions, the faculty association, student groups, and health and safety committees.

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. 

Here are six reasons we do not have confidence in U of T’s reopening plan:

  1. Unions and Associations representing frontline academic workers, our Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs) (1), 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 (2). That has not happened. U of T has not meaningfully consulted us on its plan for reopening. 
  2. 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 (EHS) (3). This U of T guideline is based on outdated information about COVID-19. It is premised on the idea that the virus spreads primarily via contact and close-range droplet transmission; however, mounting evidence (4) suggests that the virus may also be spread via airborne transmission (5). The guideline does not account for this. Further, scientists are now suggesting it’s likely that loud talk, such as that found in most lectures, exacerbates the risk of airborne spread.
  3. In addition, the guideline does not adequately account for symptomless transmission: presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission (6). Presymptomatic transmission is not mentioned at all. Asymptomatic transmission is mentioned once in 43 pages.
  4. When the science about safe and unsafe behaviour continues to move at such a rapid pace, a premature campus-wide return to in-person classes is both risky and dangerous.
  5. It's still not clear whether mask-wearing in classrooms will be required (7). For many weeks, EHS has incorrectly maintained that physical distancing measures would be enough to ensure safety in classrooms. (Again, current science shows the virus can be transmitted via aerosols and linger in poorly ventilated indoor spaces for hours.)
  6. U of T’s plan for reopening places disproportionate risk on the most precariously employed workers. The “Hyflex” or “Dual-Delivery” model of teaching that the Faculty of Arts and Science is encouraging for the fall exemplifies this inequity (8). This model 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, and so must decide who teaches in person (9).

We have raised all of these concerns with U of T’s Senior Administration, the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, and Labour Relations. Their responses have been inadequate and they have not taken our concerns seriously. 

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. 

U of T must put the safety of its students, workers, and the entire community first. 

U of T must ‘take a pause’ and take Fall 2020 online. 

Please sign this letter and distribute widely!

Sincerely, 

CUPE 3902 - U of T contract academic workers

UTFA - U of T faculty and librarians

USW 1998 - U of T administrative and technical workers

CUPE 1230 - U of T library workers

CUPE 3261 - U of T service workers

CUPE 3907 - OISE graduate assistants

 

Bibliography

(1) “Joint Health and Safety Committees / Health and Safety Representative,” Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, accessed 16 July 2020, https://www.wsps.ca/Information-Resources/Topics/JHSC-H-S-Rep.aspx.

(2) David Fisman, et al., 29 June 2020, https://www.utfa.org/sites/default/files/LettertoUofTAdmin-WorkHealthInequitiesUnderCOVID.pdf.

(3) Kelly Hannah-Moffat, “COVID-19 General Workplace Guideline (GWG),” HR & Equity, University of Toronto, 1 June 2020, accessed 16 July 2020, https://hrandequity.utoronto.ca/memos/covid-19-general-workplace-guideline-gwg/.

(4) Dyani Lewis, “Mounting evidence suggests coronavirus is airborne — but health advice has not caught up,” Nature, 23 July 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02058-1.

(5) Apoorva Mandavilli, “239 Experts With One Big Claim: The Coronavirus Is Airborne,” The New York Times, 7 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/04/health/239-experts-with-one-big-claim-the-coronavirus-is-airborne.html.

(6) Nathan W. Furukawa et al., “Evidence Supporting Transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 While Presymptomatic or Asymptomatic,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 26, no. 7, accessed 16 July 2020. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201595.

(7) “Information about Fall 2020 at U of T,” UTogether2020, University of Toronto, 22 July 2020, accessed 23 July 2020,  https://www.utoronto.ca/utogether2020/faqs. See: “4.4 Will this apply to classrooms?”

(8) “Looking ahead to the fall: Q&A with Dean Woodin,” Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto, A&S News, 19 May 2020, accessed 16 July 2020, https://www.artsci.utoronto.ca/news/looking-ahead-fall-dean-woodin

(9) Katie Mack and Gavin Yamey, “After Cruise Ships and Nursing Homes, Will Universities Be the Next COVID-19 Tinderboxes?,” Time, 16 July 2020, https://time.com/5867395/will-universities-be-next-covid-19-tinderboxes/