The University of Toronto plans to increase in-person learning and activities across its campuses as of Feb. 7 as it seeks to balance the learning needs of students with ongoing efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Specific plans for the return to in-person learning will vary depending on the particular needs and considerations of campuses, divisions and departments – and, in the case of health sciences faculties, will take into account the current strain on the health system, U of T said in a memo to community members Wednesday. Students and instructors will be contacted in the coming days to confirm arrangements, as needed, and more information will be posted on the UTogether site as it becomes available.
In order to support the increased in-person learning, teaching and related activities, U of T employees who are currently working remotely should be ready to return to campus as of Feb. 7.
Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-president and provost, said the university believes the continuation of all levels of education, from pre-school through post-secondary, is vital to students’ mental health, as has also been noted by the Ontario Science Advisory Table.
“Our students have told us how important physical presence on campus is to them – both for their academic work and for their mental well-being,” Regehr said. “U of T currently hosts thousands of students in our residences, many of whom have travelled far from home to learn and interact with their professors, classmates and friends.
“For these reasons, in the coming weeks, we will return to more in-person activities across the three campuses. We know there will be some uncertainty and apprehension around in-person study and work – and we are relying on expert advice to support our community with enhanced safety measures.”
Those ongoing safety measures – part of U of T’s 12-step plan for a safe reopening – include U of T’s vaccination requirement, upgraded ventilation in classrooms and buildings, mask-wearing in indoor spaces and self-screening via the UCheck online tool.
U of T’s decision to resume in-person learning and activities comes five weeks after it said on Dec. 15 that it was cancelling in-person exams and delaying a return to in-person learning due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
At present, 99 per cent of U of T community members are in full compliance with the vaccination mandate, with most of the remaining one per cent on their way to full vaccination.
The university is encouraging all members of its community to get a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they become eligible. New appointments are added daily to the provincial booking system and at local pharmacies. The Discovery Pharmacy in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy is now booking vaccinations for all members of the U of T community, including those without an Ontario health card.
Almost 110,000 people have uploaded their vaccine information to UCheck, which will be updated the week of Jan. 31 to allow for voluntary uploads of booster dose documentation.
U of T is also working to make medical masks available, as supplies allow, to community members who are unable to obtain them elsewhere. The university will also prioritize the use of rapid screening kits – supplies are limited at this time – for higher-risk situations. More information on both masks and rapid screening can be found at UTogether.
Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities has confirmed that, due to the public health measures implemented on campuses, as well as the high level of compliance with vaccination mandates, post-secondary institutions are not subject to restrictions on distancing or capacity limits in instructional spaces.
Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president, people strategy, equity and culture, said that U of T is grateful to employees for adapting to evolving working conditions during the pandemic.
“We are extremely proud of our employees for adapting to the challenges posed by COVID-19 – particularly those staff who have been working in-person on our campuses throughout the pandemic, including caretakers, residence and library staff, lab technicians, grounds and maintenance staff, and campus safety services,” Hannah-Moffat said.
“We continue to remain vigilant about evolving public health conditions and will adapt our plans in order to provide a safe and supportive work environment for all our employees.”
Hannah-Moffat said staff will be contacted by their managers to discuss specific plans for the return to campus. She added that U of T continues to encourage flexibility and support for employees with child-care responsibilities resulting from potential cancellation of in-person schooling and daycare.
Hannah-Moffat noted that faculty members and librarians can contact their dean, chair, director or supervisor to discuss their workload assignments – and that all employees can take advantage of the Employee & Family Assistance Program, provided at no cost 24 hours a day, to address their wellness needs.
The Robarts and Gerstein Libraries on the St. George campus, U of T Mississauga Library and U of T Scarborough Library are open to members of the U of T community, as are other libraries on the three campuses. Divisions will also make non-classroom spaces available to students so they can study and eat between classes while observing physical distancing.
Students who need wellness support are encouraged to reach out to the My Student Support Program (My SSP) for confidential, 24-hour support.
Regehr said the university is committed to providing safe conditions for working and studying on all three campuses – and will continue to remain vigilant about evolving public health conditions.
“We are confident that our enhanced safety measures, high vaccination rate and the continued efforts of the entire U of T community will allow for a safe and vibrant in-person experience for our students,” she said.