Now that universities have reopened campuses for the first time since the pandemic, one is facing criticism for not doing enough when it comes to proper distancing protocols.
The University of Toronto is being called out by students and staff for misrepresenting its physical distancing measures, after the school’s Twitter account posted photos of a spacious classroom and lecture hall.
The tweet, which was posted last week, highlights the first week of classes and includes several photos of scenes around campus. One photo shows a lecture hall with masked students each sitting individually at a table, while another shows a sparsely attended classroom with students sitting between chairs marked with a “restricted seat” placeholder.
Some on Twitter found the photos to be misrepresentative of the current reality.
Terezia Zoric, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association, says the school is making decisions based on efforts to manage perceptions rather than align with the science and follow the best practices. And that includes steps that their own experts and public health professors have said they need to take in order to be safe.
“When we’ve asked them to share information with our public health experts…they have been unwilling to share information with us,” she tells Yahoo News Canada.
Zoric explains that the school’s administration, along with those of other schools, worked successfully to lobby the provincial government to exempt universities from the kind of protections followed in a movie theatre.
“If you go to a movie you’re going to be better protected than if you go to a large lecture hall at the University of Toronto,” she says. “The abolition of physical distancing and the 100 per cent occupancy rates are specifically being called out as reckless behaviour.”
Zoric adds that out of all universities in the Greater Toronto Area, the University of Toronto has the largest classes at the highest occupancy rates.
Matthew Farish, associate professor and associate chair, undergraduate in the Department of Geography and Planning, is one of the people who responded to the social media post. In an email to Yahoo News Canada, he said that his concerns weren’t being addressed, as the university was scheduling in-person classes without physical distancing.
“My tweet was in response to a university news-story that suggested otherwise, but fundamentally I’m concerned about the exception made with respect to distancing in classes and the scramble, at the department or individual scale, to alleviate the results,” he wrote.
The school mandates that all students returning to school must be fully vaccinated.
Students reveal what happens in hallways, classrooms
Ucheck, the school’s COVID-19 assessment web portal, requires students to upload proof of vaccination. Those who haven’t been fully vaccinated and have received a University-approved exemption to visit campus, must take a rapid-test or show proof of a negative test result.
Alireza Nownahal, a computer engineering student, says he had a class this week where most of the seats were filled up but wasn’t too concerned.
“There were four people around me who were close, we weren’t physical distancing that much, but we were wearing masks the whole time and those rooms have air filters, which are working all the time,” he says. “Considering how low the case numbers are in Canada and Ontario right now, I’m feeling safe.”
Masters student Diana Jokic says the one in-person class she attends adheres to all the protocol.
“In the classroom there’s one seat between everybody, in the lab it’s very controlled in terms of what door we come in and out of,” she says.
However, she adds that hallways, entrances and foyers at the school are a different story, as she’s witnessed lots of crowding in those areas.
“You’ll see a sea of people because there’s no one there to enforce (physical distancing),” she says.
Zoric says a petition is being launched that the university’s reopening plans be based on the science of its own professors in the School of Public Health.
“This means when the Ontario Science Table says to reduce indoor density, maintain physical distancing, limit large gatherings and significantly reduce contact, that is what the University of Toronto ought to do,” she says.
In an e-mail statement, a University of Toronto spokesperson referred to the direction from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and its revised framework. It allows for flexible capacity limits and no requirement for physical distancing in indoor spaces like classrooms, libraries and labs, coupled with a mandatory vaccination requirement.
They added that since school has started more than 56,000 of the University of Toronto community had uploaded their vaccine documents into school’s online system. Of those, 94 per cent were fully vaccinated, with most of the remaining students on their way to full vaccination.