TORONTO, ON – Post-secondary students in colleges and universities have faced many challenges throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. While the announcement that post-secondary institutions will be opening in the fall is exciting news, safety needs to be the top priority. The Canadian Federation of Students Ontario calls on the provincial government to provide further clarity, improved oversight, and adequate funding to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff.
There is clear evidence that Covid-19 and its variants can quickly spread through our communities. Ontario’s own Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore expects case numbers to surge again this fall and modelling data from the science table predicts a rise in cases as the colder weather moves people indoors. With this in mind, the recent memo from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) provides only vague safety recommendations while announcing there will be no capacity limits for classes or physical distancing requirements for students.
Recent studies have shown that the airborne transmission of COVID-19 poses an acute risk, but the provincial government has done little to ensure ventilation systems are adequate and public health policies reflect this information. The Ministry memo fails to include any mention of ventilation systems. Information needs to be provided proactively and transparently with all sector stakeholders including, but not limited to: filtration level being achieved in each building, assessments of each space students will be occupying, that ventilation standards are being accessed and recorded in all occupied spaces and meet legal requirements, and that compliance is being monitored. Students need real investments to ensure facilities are safe.
“Packing students into classrooms without adequate ventilation and distancing protocols is a recipe for disaster,” highlights Michael Butler, Government Relations and Policy Coordinator, Canadian Federation of Students Ontario.
Additionally, the Ministry is only encouraging institutions to have policies in place to use rapid antigen testing for routine screening of asymptomatic individuals but falls short on providing clarity and much needed mandates. Again, the vague recommendations provide little transparency and certainty for student safety. Clear, universal, and relevant policies need to be in place across all institutions in Ontario. Compliance and monitoring information for all health protocols also needs to be provided to students.
“At this point it looks like there is no clear plan for students returning back to school in the fall. It is a disorganized patchwork across the province of different institutions with different policies. As students attempt to plan their travel, look for accommodations and pick classes, they need clarity and knowledge that their safety is being ensured for returning to in person classes,” says Kayla Weiler, National Executive Representative, Canadian Federation of Students Ontario.
Students across the province have also expressed additional concerns. There are concerns that the quality of education under this plan will be negatively affected with many institutions implementing a hybrid delivery model of instruction. Students, faculty, teaching assistants, and staff cannot be expected to succeed and achieve under a hybrid model without additional resources.
International students attending post-secondary institutions in Ontario need clarity as well. While many of the parameters for returning international students fall under federal regulations, we call on the provincial government and post-secondary administrations to assist international students. Institutions need to meet and exceed their responsibilities under their approved COVID-19 Readiness Plan.
Mental health concerns remain a major issue for students and the lack of mental health services both on and off campus is alarming. While the memo suggests, “PSE institutions should make every effort to ensure that students and employees have the mental health and wellbeing support they need,” students need real commitments. Increased and dedicated funding for culturally responsive mental health services is needed if students are to return to campus. The provincial government should also drop its vindictive legal challenge surrounding the so-called ‘Student Choice Initiative’ which has been severely detrimental to the peer-to-peer mental health services students rely on.
We look forward to the updated Postsecondary Education Public Health Measures Framework in August and hope that this framework addresses many of the current gaps which will jeopardize student safety in the fall. Once again, we ask the provincial government to consult sector stakeholders (including student groups, faculty, and staff) to ensure a safe return. Student voices, in particular, have been excluded from institution and government reopening plans. The voices, experience and wellbeing of Ontario students need to be a priority when addressing the challenges of reopening institutions safely in the fall.
The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario is the oldest and largest student organization in Ontario, representing over 350,000 college and university students in every region of the province.
For further information or to set up an interview contact: Michael Butler, Government Relations and Policy Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 437-771-2129