Update on Covid-19 and student expectations

Dear TUFA Members,

Covid-19 remains a more serious illness than the flu, and new variants may pose new challenges this fall.  At the meeting of Joint Committee on Tuesday, TUFA’s officers pressed the Employer to provide clearer communications and stronger leadership with respect to Covid-19 health and safety protocols, formal student accommodations (through SAS), and informal student requests for academic consideration and adjustments that involve some measure of remote instruction or other impositions on faculty instructors.

We also requested written confirmation from the Employer regarding next steps around masking, vaccinations, and ventilation, as well as problems of inconsistency in the institution’s messaging to students. The Employer responded substantively to these requests yesterday evening and the following message is informed by their response. Please read carefully. The information that follows should be useful in managing classroom and workload expectations.

Covid-19 health and safety:

On vaccinations, we communicated that even universities without mandatory vaccinations (Guelph for example) are requesting that staff, faculty, and students upload their vaccine status. TUFA requested that Trent do the same because accurate data should inform Trent’s response and is needed to assess community risk.

The Employer replied that they will continue to follow Public Health guidelines and directives from the province and have maintained a vaccine requirement for residence students. The Employer also intends to partner with Public Health to roll out vaccine clinics on campus and to provide incentives to increase uptake once the newest vaccine is available (likely later this month).  Given the cost of continued vaccine tracking, the Employer has decided to focus on surveillance and wastewater testing as preferred means to assess risk.

On masking, we pointed out the recent elevation of the Peterborough Community Risk Index to “High”, the province’s removal of isolation measures for individuals with Covid-19, and the prospect of an aggressively contagious new variant of concern (2.75). We requested a change in masking policy to require that masks be worn in classrooms, labs, and meeting spaces indoors until circumstances improve. 

The Employer is “strongly encouraging masking in high-capacity spaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained” and acknowledged TUFA’s argument that communications using the phrase “mask friendly” could seem to undermine or be inconsistent with this recommendation. The Employer will shortly update communications to reflect the latest Public Health guidelines (i.e. that masking is required for ten days following the onset of symptoms). They have stated that they will communicate the strong recommendation for masking more clearly, and drop the “mask friendly” language that is generating confusion.

On ventilation, we requested an update on the state of ventilation upgrades and ongoing air quality monitoring on campus. We also reiterated a request for a comprehensive report on the ventilation status of all teaching spaces, along with the plan for ongoing monitoring and reporting of same. 

The Employer provided the following in response:

“Facilities is maintaining 24-hour operation of HVAC equipment. Additionally, the University is using a combination of MERV 9 pre-filters and MERV 13 main filters in our HVAC equipment as recommended. While Facilities is making best efforts to maintain outdoor airflow rates across the campus, some of the older systems do not have the same capacity as the newer systems. To address this, 150 HEPA filters have already been distributed, with more received recently and soon to be deployed. All high-density lecture spaces have HEPA filters, as do many medium-density lecture and shared spaces. Because HEPA filters in one room can provide benefit to adjacent spaces with the same air-return infrastructure, filters are not needed in every space. Facilities continues to monitor and maintain units, changing filters as needed. We are asking everyone to do their part and not unplug units, we understand that the units create noise while operating, and we ask that employees and students do their best to find ways to work around this.”

Managing Student Expectations:

On student accommodations and requests for academic consideration we reviewed with the Employer recent communications from the University to students regarding remote/online alternatives to in-person learning. We explained that these communications were unacceptable to TUFA for three primary reasons: 1) they put the onus on faculty members to manage student expectations; 2) requested adjustments often have significant workload implications; and 3) meeting these requests can put undue pressure on the principle of academic freedom to teach according to best practices in pedagogy/andragogy. We also made clear that TUFA does not regard the preparation of remote/online alternatives to in-person learning and in-person assessments as accommodations that faculty can readily provide. It is one thing to prepare make-up tests and offer extensions, and quite another to prepare additional video lectures, audio-recordings, full lecture notes, or run hybrid in-person/online classes. Given the expected impact of Covid-19 on student attendance, we also stressed that illness-related requests for academic consideration from professors are sure to increase as the term proceeds.

To address these problems, TUFA requested that staff involved in suggesting accommodations and academic consideration to students be instructed to change their communications to students immediately such that: 1) remote accommodations for in-person courses should not be suggested or offered; 2) students whose accommodation make them unable to attend courses in-person should be directed to online courses; and 3) All students should be advised that “courses are in-person and generally cannot be adapted to provide remote options for the term.”

The Employer thanked us for this feedback and committed to provide an update to students and the campus community, as well as to take additional steps to ensure greater consistency in communications between various student services.

In Solidarity,

Moira and Marcus

Dr. Moira Howes

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy

President, Trent University Faculty Association

Dr. Marcus Harvey

Executive Director, Trent University Faculty Association