On Jan. 6, just two days after the McGill School of Social Work announced that their classes would be held virtually until Feb. 24, the McGill administration sent a follow-up email stating that they had declined the plan. The move came as a surprise to students, especially considering the policy that the McGill Senate passed Nov. 5—Course Delivery Parameter for the Winter 2022 Academic Term—that states it is ultimately up to individual faculties to choose whether or not to adapt to in-person learning. Since then, McGill has confirmed that all faculties will resume in-person classes on Jan. 24, despite a sore lack of accommodations for immunocompromised and disabled students, and an unrealistic and inequitable demand that all students be back in Montreal by that date. This rushed, forced return to in-person instruction without proper accommodations or adequate consideration for faculties—especially those like social work, whose students are directly involved in at-risk communities —is a mistake that McGill keeps repeating.
The return to in-person teaching was announced in an email that lacked both concrete details regarding safety measures and empathy for students and faculty. While a safe, gradual return to campus is possible, it has to be done with proper foresight: The plan should have given students and faculty the option to make decisions based on their needs, instead of pushing everyone into classrooms. With only a vague promise to communicate safety measures and address concerns in the coming days, students have been left in the dark about what exactly is being done to prevent outbreaks of the Omicron variant on campus.
All the while, there has been no clear explanation of the options in place for students or professors who are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19—whether due to underlying health conditions or age—or who live with people who are more vulnerable. The university’s choice to recommend the booster shot for concerned individuals ignores the possible dangers of contracting COVID-19 even with a third shot, the appointments for which are already difficult to snag. It seems unlikely that the majority of the McGill community will be triple vaccinated by Jan. 24. And even if those in the McGill community were completely protected themselves, going back to school will inevitably increase transmissions, putting the broader Montreal community more at risk.
While it is important to acknowledge the role the Quebec government plays in directing universities go back in person, other institutions such as Concordia have managed to push their return dates back by a week or two. McGill’s race to re-open has been a thoughtless one: Their refusal to respect the Faculty of Social Work’s decision to extend online learning, despite their own Senate decision, reveals a lack of consideration for students and faculty and for the communities and at-risk groups with whom they work. Students complete fieldwork programs, often working with vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In turn, being forced to return to classes risks serious harm to these groups. The importance of the work done by social workers throughout the pandemic cannot be understated––the mandated return to in-person learning potentially violates an ethical mandate social work students have to those communities who rely heavily on their support.
To everyone’s disappointment, McGill continues to make the same mistakes with their re-openings over and over again. Students, alongside The Students’ Society of McGill University vice-president University Affairs Claire Downie, have penned an open letter to the administration demanding the release of an extensive return-to-school framework, and have also worked with professors to create a document crowd-sourcing information about Winter 2022 classes. Otherwise, McGill students must rally behind the School of Social Work as they fight to protect the health and safety of their students and those they work with.