Ryerson students, health experts express concerns over return to campus decision

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By Thea Gribilas

Some Ryerson community members have been penning petitions and open letters to express their concerns with the return to campus slated to begin next week.

On Jan.19, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi announced that the university is expecting to fully return to in-person learning by Feb. 28.

Ian Young, a public health professor at Ryerson, posted an open letter on Twitter on Monday, co-signed by seven other professors from the School of Occupational and Public Health.

Courtesy @Ian_D_Young

The letter called on the school to produce a management strategy addressing various criteria including “a plan to implement a minimum of smaller (under 40) section classes in each program,” adding that most courses in the school of public health have over 100 students.

According to Young, the university has since announced that classes with more than 150 students in the School of Occupational and Public Health may continue online. 

Young also said the school should have “a plan for personal protective equipment (PPE) standards and provisions adequate for airborne disease (KN95/N95 masks) for the on-campus university community.” 

He added that the school should also prepare contingency plans for any future variants or waves that may arise. 

According to the letter, many students have expressed concerns and frustrations over the difficulties they face suddenly returning to campus for mandatory in-person classes during the Omicron wave. 

“Given the still very high rates of community transmission in Ontario and possible increases in contacts from easing in restrictions, it is likely that students, faculty and staff will be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 if on campus in the coming weeks,” reads the letter. 

Echoing similar concerns, the Continuing Education Students’ Association of X University (CESAX), published a letter calling on the university to cancel its plans for an in-person return and not put students, staff and faculty at risk.

Addressing the school as a whole, CESAX stated that “we all share frustrations with the university administration’s lack of clear and outright communication to the campus community.” 

The letter also addressed concerns about the potential of having both symptomatic and asymptomatic students in the classroom, adding that, given the current guidelines, if a student were to test positive for COVID-19 they would be forced to isolate for five days. 

This would put “significant expectations on asking students to miss coursework when they could readily have that opportunity with virtual learning.” 

“The current plan continues to ignore the reality that many students are immunocompromised or have household members or dependents that are immunocompromised,” the letter reads. “A safe return to campus must include proper ventilation and physical distancing procedures within and between classes, as well as other public health measures aside from vaccination status.”

Regarding international students, the letter reads that although “international students are treated as cash cows to address provincial funding cuts to education…this entire process has been extremely dehumanizing, exploitative and unethical [to them].”

“It is likely that students, faculty and staff will be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 if on campus in the coming weeks”

A petition for Ryerson to give students the option to remain online has also garnered significant support, which has collected over 10,500 signatures as of Jan. 26.

The petition calls on the university to reconsider its decision to move back in person, calling it “a great disservice” to students. 

“Class sizes and lectures have not been reduced in anticipation of in-person learning, so there is no form of social distancing in classrooms or auditoriums,” reads the petition. 

“Reducing exposure has been the main concern during this entire pandemic, so let’s keep it that way.”

The petition adds that, although the university requires students to be fully vaccinated before coming to campus, there are no vaccine mandates on public transit, meaning students could be exposed during their commute to class.

Jwalit Bharwani, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, has also penned a letter to the school calling on Ryerson to remain online for the remainder of the semester.

“Ryerson is a commuter school and most people do not live near campus…students who commute to school all take public transportation—vaccination certificates apply to class but not to commute,” reads Bharwani’s letter. 

Bharwani said he tested positive for COVID-19 in December 2020, which took a toll on him. 

“I tested positive a week before my exams…COVID affected my marks, my mental health, my physical health and my overall experience of university.”

Bharwani also included a survey in the letter for students to fill out with their thoughts and opinions. According to Bharwani, 300 students have completed the survey.

“With merely two months left in this semester when the school plans to reopen, it is worthless to put students through this much work and risk…I plead to Ryerson University to stay online for the remainder of [the] winter semester,” the letter reads. 

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