McGill, News

Faculties rally to strike as McGill resumes in-person classes

Many McGill students entered the classroom for the first time this semester on Jan. 24. The majority of McGill courses—except Tier 1 activities—began online due to the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 and a subsequent provincial lockdown. The university’s decision to require students and staff return to campus has been met with controversy, particularly from students who worry it is premature.

From open letters and statements to strikes, many members of the McGill community and student organizations have opposed the timing and execution of the university’s reopening. Students have called attention to the highly contagious nature of Omicron, the weak accommodations for students and staff who are immunocompromised or live with at-risk people, the speed at which the university is reopening, and the lack of respirator-style masks available on campus.

In the weeks leading up to the re-opening, the administration sent a slew of university-wide emails, spoke to campus media and other student bodies, and made a 40-minute video interviewing students and faculty about their perspectives on the reopening in an attempt to ease safety concerns and address student confusion.

The Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) followed suit, holding a town hall on Jan. 21. The first substantial point on the agenda was a question-and-answer period with Arts Faculty Associate Dean (Student Affairs) Manuel Balán, which ran well over the allocated 30-minute period. Most questions regarded McGill’s COVID-19-related accommodations and the possibility of making course materials accessible remotely. Balán explained that rules in place to protect instructors’ autonomy and intellectual property prevent the university from creating a blanket requirement to record classes.

“Given our rules, there is no possibility of mandating […] instructors [to record class content], and MAUT and instructor associations have been really protective of me, as an instructor, and my freedom to manage my content,” Balán said. “I’ve been working with a number of instructors who have those concerns, to try to get them to post recordings.”

Balán also recognized the gaps in the accommodations framework, but vowed that the university is working to address them, urging students facing difficult circumstances to reach out to him directly in the meantime. 

“There’s a framework for […] instructors who are in a position that may put dependents [at] risk [of contracting COVID-19], but for students, there’s no such framework in place,” Balán said. “In the absence of that framework, […] we don’t have easy answers right now, but […] I will ask to hear from students in those situations and we will do our best, within our abilities, to try to help you navigate that.” 

After the question period with Balán elapsed, Anya Narang, AUS speaker of the council and town hall facilitator, conducted a “temperature check,” polling the 40 or so attendees on their willingness to accept McGill’s plans for a Jan. 24 return to campus. The majority voted “no” in the informal poll. The town hall then entered an open period to discuss what position the AUS should adopt in regard to the return to in-person instruction, with talk of a potential strike front and centre.

George Ghabrial, U0 Arts and town hall attendee, suggested that a larger assembly with more AUS members present would be a good next step in deciding whether the society should call for strike—a decision that would translate to a refusal to attend in-person classes.

“I think one of the most important things, really, is to […] have some sort of general assembly that is open to the broad [arts] student body,” Ghabrial said. “We have seen time and time again […] that the McGill administration just does not […] seem to have the students’ best interest in mind.”

Codey Martin, U3 Social Work, town hall attendee, and active participant in the School of Social Work’s strike emphasized the need for compassion during these times given the many factors that affect the accessibility of both in-person and online instruction.

“Our mandates, and our efforts to strike this in-person is about compassion and an understanding [of] the realities of the respective homes that we come from,” Martin said. “We are all placed in unique, and difficult, situations. Some may, or may not, carry internet, or have limited access. [Some may have] learning disabilities, whatever it may be.”

Martin also shared a sentiment echoed by many throughout the event: That McGill is prioritizing profit over student safety. 

“A lot of us that are advocating and speaking up to this colonial power and oppression, that comes from the heart, that is compassion,” Martin said. “What McGill, and everything about this situation, is building off of is capitalism [and] loss of revenue on the campus downtown.”

Though it failed to establish concrete action items, the town hall concluded with high energy levels and a clear need for further discussion. 

On the same day as the AUS town hall, Jan. 21, the McGill administration held a student media roundtable on the return to campus with Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs) Christopher Buddle and Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Fabrice Labeau. Both Buddle and Labeau stressed that McGill believes conditions are safe enough to return to in-person instruction. 

When asked whether the procedural masks the university is distributing provide adequate protection against the Omicron variant—a point of contention raised in the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) press release—Labeau referenced a recent Institut national de santé publique du Québec’s (INSPQ) comparison of the efficacy of procedural and respirator-style masks. 

“That report—which, by the way, is very much corroborated by our own medical experts—[finds] that there are not many settings in a university environment that could justify wearing an N95,” Labeau said. “Overall, given the conditions under which we interact and the level of risk, a procedural mask is really what we should go with.”

SSMU announced on Jan. 21 that it will be distributing respirator-style masks on a pay-what-you-can basis to at-risk students and those who come in contact with at-risk people frequently. Additionally, SSMU has created a spreadsheet with information about courses’ remote accessibility. 

During the roundtable, the provosts also explained that there has been a shift in Quebec’s, and thus McGill’s, attitude toward pandemic management, noting that the Omicron variant, while more contagious, looks to cause less severe disease in most. Labeau acknowledged that McGill’s COVID-19 dashboard will be less accurate and will provide less detail given the decreased availability of testing and the onus now being placed on individuals who test positive to conduct contact tracing themselves.

“What we will be watching is the trends: Are we getting more calls this week or is it going down?” Labeau said. “That will give us a sense of the trend at McGill, but we will never have access to the absolute number of cases.”

As of Jan. 24, undergraduates in the School of Social Work and graduates in the Education Faculty have decided to strike until Feb. 25 and Jan. 25 respectively. Each faculty will hold a vote over whether or not to extend the strike when each respective date approaches. Some students within both the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Arts are mobilizing for potential strikes as well.

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