Too many of my peers read the U of T’s January 19 announcement about the university return to personal classes was a moment of joy and relief. However, when the message hit my inbox, I experienced a now very familiar moment for fear of what it would mean.
The school’s decision represents a hasty assessment of the dangers of reopening and can put many at risk. The worst outbreak of the Omicron variant may occur before most students are back in person, but providing an online option for the rest of the semester would ease students’ concerns and provide a safer experience.
Vice President and Provost Cheryl Regehr and Vice President, People Strategy, Equity and Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat announced in a recent email that the university’s personal activity would increase in early February. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Melanie Woodin, announced in a separate email that for students enrolled in the faculty, all classes will have online opportunities until February 28, after which personal classes will take place exclusively on campus . In an email sent to all students and staff, Regehr wrote: “Our students have told us how important physical presence on campus is for them – both for their academic work and for their mental well-being.”
Given my online learning experience in 2020-2021, I can confirm that isolation and lack of personal interaction can lead to depression and anxiety. I would love to interact with my peers in a classroom environment. Unfortunately, at least for me, returning to personal learning in the current environment would hardly be an anxiety-free prospect.
I seriously doubt the university’s ability to protect us from being infected with the virus. While policies during the fall period seemed to prevent serious spread of COVID-19 within the university community, the Omicron variant has proven far more transferable than previous variants, meaning that last semester’s measures are unlikely to be enough to prevent transmission.
Recent declines in the number of cases appear to signal an end to the shockingly contagious Omicron wave – yet lack of COVID-19 tests may mean that some cases are being unreported. This shows the precarious situation where U of T seems to be comfortable sending its students and faculties rude.
When faced increasing COVID-19 cases in autumn 2020, U of T moved all classes online. Of course, it may be unfair to compare the situation last year, where many students had one or no vaccine dose, with now that the dean cites statistics that 99 percent of community members are “fully vaccinated.” However, there is no reliable information on how many students have received a booster shot.
While two doses of previous wave mRNA vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing serious illness and infection in general, Omicron is more resistant to the vaccine. ONE recent Harvard study concluded that a third “booster” dose provides much better protection against Omicron than two doses. Two doses may still be enough to prevent serious illness, as an investigation indicates, but if many students have not received a booster, it is dangerous to send them into the Omicron wave.
Last semester, I observed overcrowded and poorly ventilated lecture halls filled with students wearing inadequate masks. Lectures can host hundreds of people. Many lectures take place in older buildings that may have poor ventilation, allowing for the accumulation of airborne droplets that spread the virus. For example, I have lectures in Alumni Hall, a large room without windows that holds a capacity of 284 students. My class is usually attended by about 80 students, with only a small chair between two people. I do not feel comfortable being in such a room for over two hours, given these conditions.
While most students I see in lectures wear masks, some of their masks are ineffective. A Toronto Public Health on December 15th Map says that in order for the masks to be most effective, they should have no less than three layers. This means that if you were thinking of wearing a one- or two-layer fabric mask or a scarf-style mask, you should leave them at home.
Last semester, I often went into class and saw some students wearing simply inadequate masks. Knowing that these may be the conditions I will return to in February scares me. I hope U of T will supply N95 or medical masks and advocate for their use over one- or two-layer fabric masks.
Students can see the dangers of entering into this variant and conclude that they will take the risk if it means they are going to see their friends. This variant is mild after all, right? The Omicron variant actually results in lower rates of severe outcomes than previous variants. Public Health Ontario reported that the risk of hospitalization or death for Omicron cases was 59 percent lower than for Delta cases.
However, this does not paint a complete picture of the risks of Omicron. As with all COVID-19 strains, people with chronic medical conditions or those who are immunocompromised are at greater risk, according to to the national government.
Even people without medical conditions can develop ‘long COVID.’ Officially marked ‘post COVID-19 mode’ off Canadian Government, prolonged COVID involves prolonged symptoms that may occur after even mild or asymptomatic infection. The Canadian government is also clarifying symptoms, which may include fatigue, memory problems, sleep disorders, shortness of breath, anxiety and depression. This is a serious risk that even young, healthy, vaccinated people should consider.
Despite our best efforts, members of the U of T community will be exposed to COVID-19. Many of our peers probably have COVID-19 right now. Eliminating online classroom opportunities means students incurring COVID-19 have no choice but to show up on campus, which could potentially infect society.
I ask administrators for some gentleness by demanding that the Faculty of Arts and Science students return for personal tuition on February 28th. Offering high-quality online opportunities for the rest of the semester will provide students who are uncomfortable with returning to personal tutoring, and those with COVID-19, a safe alternative that still allows them to succeed academically.
As for students, I encourage you to research the Omicron variant and determine the risks you take by returning to teaching. If you are uncomfortable, express your concerns. If you choose to return to personal learning, please prepare as best you can with a booster dose and an N95 or medical mask. Online learning stinks, but it’s worth saving lives.
Jacob Lefkowitz Brooks is a second-year philosophy student at New College.