Unions do not believe it is safe to be on campus today
The University of Ottawa has decided to stick to its plan to welcome back students and professors to campus today. This, in spite of numerous concerns from the University’s community surrounding the “Freedom Convoy” protests taking place in the city’s downtown core and the risks associated with the Omicron variant.
On Sunday evening, the office of the U of O’s provost sent an email to all members of the University community announcing that it was closely monitoring with the authorities the events unfolding in the streets neighbouring campus and planned to go ahead with its scheduled return to campus.
On Twitter, the University warned students of “potential disruptions to traffic and public transit due to the demonstration on Parliament Hill,” and advised students to “plan [their] travel accordingly.”
This announcement was sent to members of the community in spite of the Ottawa Police Service’s ongoing advisory against travelling to the City’s downtown core — a warning the police reiterated on Twitter Sunday evening.
This announcement was lambasted by the University’s undergraduate student union which accused the institution of jeopardizing students’ safety by requiring them to attend classes in person on campus.
In a statement, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) stated that “the convoy that has gridlocked Ottawa’s downtown core is not [a] regular protest — it is a hateful mob, fueled by white nationalists and Canada’s far-right, with no regard for the wellbeing of residents or the public health of others.”
“Many of us have seen the trucks adorned with confederate flags and swastikas parading through the downtown core and Sandy Hill. We’ve heard about homophobic and racist slurs drawn onto signs and car windows, the desecrating of the Terry Fox statue or the Canadian War Memorial, and the mockery of Indigenous cultures and traditions. Many students have told us that they know people who were harassed for simply wearing a mask, or targeted for putting up a Pride Flag in their window.”
“We simply do not know what will happen tomorrow,” wrote the UOSU’s Executive Committee.
The Union believes that if the University gives its staff the option to stay home, it should also let students attend courses virtually. The Union calls on the University to reverse its decision and push back the re-opening of campus to later this week. It also called on professors to consider teaching remotely on an exceptional basis.
“If campus isn’t safe for University staff, it is not safe for students or faculty.”
Omicron still a major concern
The convoy isn’t the U of O community’s only concern when it comes to the University’s return to campus. Many are worried about the Omicron variant, and what they believe to be a lackluster plan when it comes to safety from the U of O.
The University stated that it will continue to use the current two-dose vaccine mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. The UOSU, the Association of Part-Time Professors of the University of Ottawa (APTPUO), and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) have all expressed their desires for a third-dose vaccine mandate.
Sue Wurtele, president of OCUFA, argued for a more robust screening process in an interview with the Fulcrum. She also wants to see universities implement a stronger mask mandate that takes into account more specific mask efficacy.
Additionally, Wurtele describes the changes in provincial physical distancing requirements that have been in place since the Delta variant as bizarre. Under the current guidelines, the province does not require distancing in university settings. However, distancing remains mandatory in the same spaces when they are used for other meetings.
On Jan. 21, the APTPUO put out a press release expressing concerns about the safety of their members in light of the reopening plan.
“The APTPUO denounces the hasty decision and lack of leadership of the president and vice-chancellor, Jacques Frémont, following the announcement,” stated the release.
The release refers to the lack of long-term disability insurance for part-time professors and the risk this poses for them in light of COVID-19. Additionally, the APTPUO expressed concern about the vagueness of the health and safety measures in place for the return.
The APTPUO strongly recommended three points of action to be taken by Frémont: postponing the return to campus, allowing professors to decide how they will deliver their courses, and ensuring that health and safety measures are firmly in place.
On Jan. 24, 2022, the OCUFA released a statement speaking on behalf of faculty and academic librarians.
“Faculty and academic librarians are concerned that they have not been adequately informed or meaningfully consulted about what this return should look like,” the release reads.
On Jan. 25th, APTPUO announced a petition on Twitter to reschedule the return to campus to what they called “a later and safe date.”
At the time of publication, the petition had collected 140 signatures.
Circumstances and concerns
Part-time professors do not have the liberty to choose their course delivery mode in the same way that full-time professors do.
Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) president Susan Spronk acknowledged this difference and expressed the APUO’s solidarity with part-time professors in an interview with the Fulcrum.
“APUO professors have much stronger rights in the collective agreement for academic freedom with respect to the modality of teaching,” explained Spronk.
“We are also concerned about our colleagues in the part-time union. Their ability to negotiate in terms of getting accommodations, in the case of health problems or other types of problems, is much reduced,” she added.
Wurtele also expressed frustrations about the mode and lack of consultations that were made to come to this decision.
“Members are frustrated that many students believe that it’s faculty driving the decision to return in person – I think that’s false,” she said.
Spronk added that they have been asking since the beginning of bimodal teaching for interunion meetings, however, the University has insisted on meeting with unions individually.
“We find that inadequate or not ideal, because we have common interests,” said Spronk.
While students and professors will be going back to in-person and bimodal learning this morning, support staff will gradually make a return by mid-March.
Back to bimodality
Assistant professor Veldon Coburn and part-time professor Sharon Lee still have some apprehension regarding the return.
“For health and safety, I still have some misgivings. I am still a bit concerned,” Coburn said.
They both find that their students are presenting similar concerns.
“I have polled my students and certainly 50 per cent of them, at least in the one class, reported that they were afraid to come back due to COVID-19,” said Lee.
Wurtele noted that professors do want to return to their regular modes of reaching, but remain concerned in light of the Omicron variant.
Spronk added that quality in the learning experience is a priority, and a lack of familiarity with bimodal delivery threatens to diminish that quality.
“When the professor is the one who gets to choose, it also can help create a better learning environment because the person delivering the course is invested,” she explained.
Coburn expressed the difficulties of bimodal forms of teaching due to the balance required between the students online and the students in-person, as well as the technological competency required.
Distance is also a concern. When the University announced the semester would start online, some students opted not to move back to Ottawa.
“Now that we are forced back into class, I have people that are not here, and it is in person. So on Monday morning, with the support of the technical staff, I will improvise and change my class into bimodal. I am not required to, but I have a student in British Columbia,” said Coburn.
Despite his concerns, he looks forward to a more personal class atmosphere.
“I am looking forward to having live gestures of acknowledgement, so I can get a bit of feedback,” he said.
Communications and consultations
Lee expressed uncertainty in the communications the school has made with students since the changes in circumstances.
“I am not privy to how the decision is made, but this Omicron thing has been so sudden that perhaps we haven’t got the data. Perhaps we haven’t asked the students today how they feel about it,” said Lee.
Coburn is appreciative of the unions that have brought forth their concerns, but understands that ultimately, the decisions are left to the executives at the University.