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Unions, students raise concern over University of Toronto’s Fall 2020 in-person learning

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TORONTO — Canada’s largest university is defending its decision to hold some of its fall course offerings in person this September, despite mounting pushback from faculty members and students.

A petition launched by the union representing faculty members at the University of Toronto is calling on the school to “pause” plans for on-campus classes, arguing the move will not guarantee a safe return for students and staff.

Academic workers, library staff, graduate assistants and administrative employees are among the more than 2,600 people who had signed the petition since it went live late last week.

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The document said the school is out of step with other universities in the province that have opted to hold most courses online, adding a return to in-person teaching fails to address widespread safety concerns that continue to play out during an “unprecedented health crisis.”

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But Heather Boon, vice-provost of faculty and academic life, said the school is pursuing a limited return to campus in line with other reopening measures happening elsewhere in the province.

“We’re going to follow the same kinds of safety and public health guidelines that you see, frankly, in any public spaces you can go into these days,” Boon said.

“We will be limiting the number of people that can be in any space. There will be signage and arrows on the floor and we will all be wearing masks in common spaces. It really won’t feel that different to people on campus in the building than it does when you go grocery shopping.”

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Boon said 90 per cent of undergraduate courses will be held online, with only a small number including in-person instruction components. The university will limit the number of people allowed in school spaces and make masks mandatory in common areas including classrooms, she added.

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The university said it will cap class sizes at 20 people and hold lectures in rooms equipped to hold 120 students in order to ensure physical distancing protocols can be observed.

Boon said in-person learning represents the best option for most attendees.

“For our students … it is easier for them to learn in person,” she said. “We are trying to be flexible and trying to keep people safe at the same time. We have thought very carefully about this.”

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But Boon’s assurances weren’t enough for some of those who may find themselves on campus in a little over a month.

Padmaja Rengamannar, a third-year journalism and political science student at U of T, said it’s too soon to consider a return to traditional in-class instruction. She said the university’s plan would be more realistic in the fall of 2021 or after an anticipated second wave of COVID-19 cases has been resolved.

“Despite how much I miss in-person classes and meeting my friends on campus, I think for the long run it’s important that we take all the precautions we can right now,” Rengamannar said.

A representative for one of the unions who drafted the petition said health concerns related to university attendance won’t necessarily originate on campus.

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Qusai Hassan of CUPE 3902, which represents contract education workers, said students and teaching assistants commonly use public transit to travel to class, potentially putting their health at risk.

“The lives of the people making the decisions aren’t necessarily at risk, but the workers who have to come in to earn a living wage do not have that choice,” Hassan said of the university’s decision-makers.

Hassan called on university officials to examine all courses to determine whether in-person instruction is absolutely necessary. That process, he said, should include input from those who teach the classes.

“We demand that the workers who have to go in must be consulted,” he said. “It’s not much to ask, but the fact that the university won’t even give us this luxury is very telling.”

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The union said the administration’s response to its inquiries has been inadequate.

Other Ontario universities such as Queen’s, Ryerson and Lakehead, have said the majority of their courses will be carried out online, while on-campus courses will be delivered with government-recommended public health protocols in place.