The Ontario University and Colleges Coalition echoes the concerns of students and workers across the province about unsafe and rushed plans to return to campus. With notice of returning back to in-person learning for some institutions as soon as January 31, students are nervous about inadequate safety plans, the accessibility of continuing with online learning and academic penalties for those who do not feel safe being back on campus. Without access to critical PPE such as N95 masks, uncertainties about ventilation, lack of routine reporting of COVID-19 case counts, and no physical distancing practices, students and workers know that such an abrupt plan to return to campus is not conducive to learning, and it seriously jeopardizes the safety of all campus community members.
Due to college and university administrations lobbying the Ontario government for campuses to have an exemption from capacity limits and physical distancing requirements, students and workers have been apprehensive of the rationale to allow overcrowded classrooms such as 500 person lecture halls with no restrictions being deemed as safe. Students and workers have witnessed the detrimental consequences of disregarding scientific evidence and loosening restrictions too soon. Additionally, many ventilation systems on campuses have not been properly updated or improved to help stop the spread of COVID-19, nor have standardized ventilation improvements been adequately reported.
It is vital that the decision to return to campus respects individual comfort, safety and wellbeing. Although there are students and faculty who are looking forward to returning to campus, others are not confident due to a lack of strong health and safety measures and are nervous and do not feel safe returning to in-person learning. Many students and faculty who are immunocompromised or live in a household with immunocompromised individuals, are not reflected in their administration’s plans to return to campus. Many workers who have continued to be on campus throughout the pandemic also have health and safety concerns that have not yet been addressed, and these must be addressed before campuses are opened to in-person learning.
With little notice, those who do not currently live in the same region or close to their college or university now have to scramble to find adequate and affordable housing, which was challenging before the pandemic. International students are amongst the worst affected as they continue to face barriers like sporadically changing travel advisories and bans, and difficulties in finding housing in the city or regions of their institutions.
Students, faculty and workers demand action from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and the Minister Jill Dunlop to address the numerous health and safety concerns of the plans to return to campus. The numerous health and safety concerns on campuses need to be addressed, and alternative plans must be made available. The following demands should be met before resuming in-person learning on campuses across the province
- The Ministry and institutions need to ensure equitable access to personal protective equipment, vaccines, and COVID testing
- Institutions should ensure consistent reporting of COVID-19 case counts, ventilation reports, and all public health guidelines
- Workers and students should have the right to refuse mandatory in-person classes and have the option of attending online classes without any penalty or wage loss
- A safer return to campus means students should have longer, more flexible deadlines to drop courses without academic penalty.
- Institutions are to ensure sick days without academic penalty, mental health accommodations without a medical diagnosis requirement, and flexibility between in-person and virtual classes
- Institutions must communicate a clear plan and threshold for a switch to remote-learning or a campus closure plan that is informed by public health guidelines
- Institutions must ensure faculty, staff, and students have access to all the resources to ensure high-quality education for both in-person and online learning.
- The provincial government must increase public funding for more teaching assistants and lower class sizes
- Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS-O)
- Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)
- Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA)
- Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) – College Faculty, Support Staff, and University Sector
- Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF)
- Public Service Alliance of Canada Ontario (PSAC Ontario)