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Pandemic passage

Pandemic passage

[iStock.com / CentrallTAlliance]

Even though Teressa Fedorak has taught full-time at Thompson Rivers University for some two decades, often taking on a dozen or more courses per year as a sessional lecturer, she always understood the precarity of her employment situation.

But when COVID-19 swept across the country last March, the worrying became incessant. She was awarded — and compensated for — a single eight hour contract to produce a remote course, something she says actually took at least 40 hours to learn about and create. Then, she and other sessional instructors in her area got letters informing them that there would be no work for the coming year.

“No thought was given to us as high-performing staff. It is hurtful to be treated as disposable after being loyal for so many years,” she says.

Fedorak has now been given just one course to teach during the Fall session, which will pay nowhere near a livable salary. She says the economic uncertainty gnaws at her and other colleagues in similar situations. “It gets under your skin, constantly worrying that the university will not protect long-term faculty who have served the institution for so many years. There are lots of sleepless nights”

She is not alone.

CAUT surveyed its members to understand the impact of the pandemic on the working lives of academic staff two months following the shut-down of campuses. Over 4,300 academic staff from all provinces participated in the survey.

Like Fedorak, about one in 10 surveyed have seen their work eliminated or reduced since the pandemic, yet the almost overnight shift to remote teaching has resulted in increased workload for many others, with, ironically, contract academic staff (CAS) taking the brunt of extra work due to teaching the most classes.

In fact, the majority of academic staff from universities and colleges are working more than before COVID-19 with almost one-third working an additional 10 or more hours per week to transition their courses online and to support students in this new learning environment. For CAS, this extra work is not compensated. And for all academic staff, research activities have slowed down or stalled completely.

Predictably, nearly 85 per cent of respondents reported somewhat or much higher stress levels due to the pandemic, as they struggle to balance work and dependent care, meet the challenges with performing their teaching and research duties, and worry about job security.

“Academic staff are worried about their students, their research, and their jobs. It is not clear how the concerns about remote teaching, research and jobs at universities and colleges are going to be addressed without more government and institutional support for post-secondary education,” says CAUT President Brenda Austin-Smith.

She notes that governments have partially addressed the pandemic’s immediate financial impacts through programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit for individuals, and an injection of $19 billion in federal funding to the provinces for a ‘safe economic restart,’ plus $2 billion for K-12 education. However, more needs to be done specifically for the post-secondary education sector.

“Universities and colleges are key partners through research and education in solving the current health and economic crisis, but many are facing some financial pressures as a result of government cuts made worse by the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, staff and students are preparing for an unprecedented academic year. Most institutions are planning to offer courses mainly remotely, with some limited on-campus instruction. Others, including Carleton University, the University of Manitoba, Mount Saint Vincent and Concordia, will be holding all classes virtually, with Concordia also keeping its residences shuttered.

A few institutions are bucking that trend. St. Francis Xavier, for instance, is running classes largely on campus; the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia were planning the same for smaller classes, while offering large classes online.

Those plans, however, raised concerns for the health and safety of staff compelled to do their jobs on campus, spurring the University of Toronto Faculty Association, CUPE 3902 and other campus unions to join together in launching a petition protesting the reopening plan as failing to guarantee a safe return to work.

The petition attracted 6,500 signatures and in late August, administrators announced that for Fall 2020, faculty and other lecturers would now have the right to teach remotely. 

Similar concerns at St. F-X were augmented when the school required incoming students to sign a legal waiver aiming to absolve it from any legal responsibility should they contract COVID-19 while attending classes or activities.

Martin van Bommel, president of the St. Francis Xavier University Association of University Teachers (StFXAUT) said there was “a distinct lack of communication and consultation with campus unions surrounding the waiver.”

“Its content implies the University is not confident of taking all of the precautions necessary to safeguard students, staff, and members of the local community. The University administration has assured students and staff that safety is a top priority, yet the waiver sends a very different message,” van Bommel explains.

“Members also continue to be frustrated with the lack of clarity on the exact layout of classrooms and the protocols to observe during classes. Masks, face shields, and plexiglass have all been suggested, but no definitive answer has been given.”

The frustrations voiced by members of StFXAUT are being felt across the country. CAUT’s survey results indicate that only one in 4 feel they have been consulted before decisions that affect them are made.

Despite these concerns, it remains clear that many teachers and students are craving a return to “normal.”

“Our members remain cautiously optimistic and we are pleased to hear the safety and wellbeing of students, staff, and faculty is top priority and hope preparations are successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19,” van Bommel says. “Members are looking forward to again being able to have in person interactions with students and colleagues, and returning to a vibrant campus. Unfortunately, those among us who are immunocompromised, as well as those who are caregivers for or living with individuals at risk, will need to delay this return a bit longer.”

Liam Keller, a 24-year-old University of Toronto engineering graduate planning to attend law school in Winnipeg this Fall, says he will be moving to that city although all his classes at the U. of M. will be online for at least until January.

Like other students, he wants the opportunity to get to know the city and take part in informal meetings organized by students outside the university setting. While he also worries about isolation from old friends and family, moving is “one of the only ways to genuinely connect with other students right now. Zoom classes are one thing in a setting where you already know people, but not great if you haven’t met them yet. So actually being there will be one of the few chances to really connect.”

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