Early in the summer, against a backdrop of rising Delta variant infections and increasingly fractious on-campus debates about mandatory vaccination policies for returning students, representatives of the academic staff for the four Greater Toronto Area (GTA) universities hammered out a 16-point health-and-safety checklist for university re-openings.
The coalition called on the administrations of the four institutions — the University of Toronto (U of T), York University, Ryerson/X University and the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) — to provide “greater detail and transparency” in their reopening plans. Terezia Zoric, who heads the U of T Faculty Association and speaks for the coalition, said the effort was a direct response to the Ontario government’s announcement allowing universities and colleges to resume without ensuring adequate protections.
“Many faculty are concerned that it’s not [going to be] safe,” said Min Sook Lee, president of the OCAD U Faculty Association, in an interview in mid-July. She added that administrators must do a much better job communicating their plans. “People are asking really basic questions.”
The questions, of course, have cropped up on campuses across Canada, with academic staff pushing administrators to explain their re-opening plans and negotiate memorandums of understanding (MOUs) governing a range of pandemic-related issues. The dynamics are at once complex and highly fluid, with universities themselves making the decisions, in some cases dictated by rapidly evolving public health policies. In Alberta, the Kenney government’s mid-summer decision to lift mask, testing and isolation rules has “deeply concerned” academic staff.
With the fall semester now starting, questions still abound, both about the substance of the policies and the processes that produced them. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have struggled to be part of the process that leads to [the administration’s] decisions,” said Tara Perrot, president of the Dalhousie University Faculty Association, which has filed grievances over being excluded from decision-making. Michael Arfken, who heads the University of Prince Edward Island Faculty Association (UPEIFA), observed that a fall term full of campus outbreaks will be highly detrimental to the student experience. But, he added, “Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions. The health guidelines have to fit within the collective agreement, not the university’s business model.”
A vaccinated campus
In an editorial in late July, The Globe and Mail lauded Seneca College, in suburban Toronto, for its policy of requiring all students and staff on campus to be vaccinated. In early August, the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations called on the provincial government and university administrations to implement a mandatory vaccine policy for both students and returning staff. Within weeks, other universities — Ottawa and then Toronto — followed with their own policies, either requiring vaccines for staff and students on campus and in residence, or mandating regular COVID tests for those who had not had shots.
Earlier in the summer, public opinion about vaccine mandates among instructors did vary. Andrew Kirk, who heads the McGill Association of University teachers, recounts that a lot of his members wanted to see everyone vaccinated, while at OCADU, some faculty association members had reservations about compelling staff and students to get vaccinated. Other associations did not initially take a stand. By the beginning of the fall term, however, the spread of the Delta variant drove greater interest in vaccination requirements. The debate among faculty had also largely been overtaken by the wave of vaccine mandates adopted by most provincial governments and university administrations.
Besides the legal and privacy issues surrounding mandatory vaccination, some academic staff associations note that student body demographics are also playing a role. Lee Easton, president of the Mount Royal University Faculty Association, in Alberta, said vaccination rates in the province’s big cities were quite high. But a large proportion of Mount Royal students come from rural areas, where vaccine rates are generally lower, especially among those in their teens and twenties. “The people least likely to be vaccinated are the same people who will show up in our classrooms.”
Across the country, there is little consistency in the degree to which universities are planning to re-open. In some provinces, like Alberta and Quebec, governments were proceeding early in the summer with complete re-opening plans, although Easton says up to 30 per cent of the courses at Mount Royal will be delivered remotely. At McGill, says Kirk, classes with fewer than 30 students will be offered in person and those with over 150 will be online only initially, and could then shift to in-person, depending on the vaccination roll-out. “The threshold for this is up to the province,” he said.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities has said institutions should aspire to return to in-person teaching but can adopt a flexible approach as circumstances demand. The GTA coalition agrees and is “encouraging Administrations to use this flexibility and act accordingly until it is proven safe.”
The point of contention for many academic staff has to do with employer expectations about hybrid courses. Instructors say hybrid courses — delivered both online and in person — essentially require twice the work, said Easton, whose association has refused to consider demands for hybrid mode. Individual instructors can offer both if they choose.
Others point to another concern regarding the hybrid model, which is the use of live lecture capture technology in class, and related questions about surveillance, privacy, and academic freedom. “Some members don’t want cameras in class,” said Arfken, at UPEIFA, noting that decisions about the use of these devices have often been foisted on instructors with little warning or consultation.
As researchers learned more about the nature of the COVID-19 virus, a scientific consensus developed around the risk of aerosolized transmission in places where large numbers of people congregate.
Consequently, in many campus buildings with cramped lecture halls and crowded common areas, ventilation has become a hot-button issue in the return-to-campus negotiations between academic staff and administrators that have played out in recent months. “OCAD U has some pretty old classrooms,” observed Lee. “It’s very clear when you’re working on those offices or classrooms that the ventilation systems are old.” The GTA coalition’s checklist, which draws heavily on the input of U of T air quality expert Jeffrey Siegel, includes detailed recommendations about HVAC systems, filtration devices, and the measurement of air pressure around registers or ducts.
Academic staff association executive members have pressed university and college administrators to provide up-to-date information on ventilation system maintenance and the “air exchange rate,” a measure of how often the air in a room is entirely replaced. Early in the pandemic, said Arfken, UPEI assigned occupancy scores to every space on the campus, based on social distancing requirements given the size of the room. Heading into the fall, he added, “It’s not clear if [the University] will abide by those numbers.” In other cases, the academic staff associations couldn’t even get basic information about classroom ventilation standards. “We’ve just played run-around,” says Dalhousie’s Perrot. “What we really wanted was the data.”
The X factor in the discussion about ventilation involves the evolving provincial policies on social distancing and masking requirements. In Quebec, Kirk observed, provincial authorities have linked vaccination rate thresholds to social distancing rules, with the elimination of distancing requirements when 75% of the population is double-vaccinated.
Early in the pandemic, after classes shifted abruptly to remote instruction, many institutions and academic staff negotiated MOUs about what becomes of uploaded teaching materials, online lectures, and guarantees for instructors, including part-time or sessional faculty, that their intellectual property will be protected. Traditionally, lectures, assignments, and specially formulated course materials have been considered to be the instructor’s intellectual property, while outlines and course/program descriptions belong to the university. With online lectures, associations have raised questions about what becomes of uploaded teaching materials, and what guarantees there will be for instructors, including part-time faculty or sessionals, that their intellectual property will be protected.
At UPEI, said Arfken, the collective agreement has “fairly robust” language around intellectual property, but a recent survey of the association’s members indicated that many felt they need more resources, training, and support to properly deliver instruction online this fall. Mount Royal’s Easton echoes the sentiment. “I don’t see that as a flashpoint.” The reason, in part, is because the university has remained committed to the idea of in-person education rather than shifting to delivering more of its course to online only. McGill has a similar outlook, says Kirk, and students are told that they shouldn’t copy or circulate teaching materials. But there’s a caution: “In practice, does the university actually enforce that?”
With the pandemic conditions evolving constantly, one theme emerges clearly: the critical importance of greater communication and openness on the part of administrations, and the need for collaborative decision-making via joint health and safety committees, involving not just academic staff, but also other staff unions and student groups. Excluding academic staff, as has happened at several institutions, is simply the wrong approach. “We are on the front lines,” added Perrot. “We’re boots on the ground in the university. We’ve got to be there.”