U of T’s fall reopening plan ‘unacceptable,’ says union

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The union representing more than 10,000 contract academic workers at the University of Toronto is speaking out against the recent COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

In light of new public health measures in Toronto, the university announced on October 10 that it would close indoor gyms and fitness centres, shift to take-out only food services and limit organized activities, but that in-person teaching and instruction at universities are exempted from the new restrictions. While about 90 per cent of courses are being offered remotely, it continues to require in-person instruction for some courses. That same week, students and staff contracted the virus.

As Staff Union CUPE 3902 further points out, the university asked its principals and deans to review other in-person activities, including instruction. The Faculty of Arts & Science (the largest faculty on campus) said that all classes in the faculty currently offered via hybrid dual delivery mode would move completely online for the remainder of the fall semester.

After a number of on-campus outbreaks, CUPE 3902 was advised that the university was finally ‘moving toward’ required screening for students and staff. Amy Conwell, chair of Staff Union CUPE 3902, said “it’s completely unacceptable” that these predictable outbreaks are occurring.

“To add insult to injury, U of T isn’t disclosing the real number of COVID-19 cases related to recent on-campus outbreaks,” she said. “Canada’s top university needs to listen to its own world-class faculty if it wants to do better than the D-grade it received on its fall reopening plan.”

As early as July, CUPE 3902 and a coalition of other campus unions including UTFA called for fall term classes to be offered online-only in anticipation of the second wave of COVID-19 cases currently sweeping the province. Expert epidemiologists at the university suggested the school adopt reopening plans in line with those of other Ontario universities that went entirely or mostly online.

The university refused to meet with the coalition to discuss reopening plans despite public calls to do so.

“Going forward, unions, faculty and employee associations, and front-line management must have a meaningful role in both University reopening plans and in development of ongoing remote work policies. Each of these groups should be consulted before decisions are taken and information is disseminated.”

That was one sentence from a letter the Dalla Lana School of Public Health sent to the president and vice-presidents on June 29. It was signed by professors of epidemiology, occupational and environmental health, global health, indigenous health, and social and behavioural health science.

Staff unions requested that U of T establish proactive mandatory screening, on-campus testing, centralized contact logs, and take the fall semester completely online. But CUPE 3902 says the university launched UCheck in September, a U of T branded voluntary self-assessment tool that pulls together widely known public health guidance.

A recent press release states, “the University has taken the position that it has no obligation to inform University Joint Health and Safety Committees when students who have been present in their workplaces test positive for COVID-19. The union believes that the University of Toronto’s approach is completely irresponsible and violates employees’ rights to be made aware of hazards in their workplaces.”

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