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A person walks past the University of Toronto campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on June 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

University of Toronto staff unions and the U of T Faculty Association (UTFA) are protesting the university’s plans for in-person classes in the fall, which contrast with other Ontario institutions that have chosen to teach the semester online. The groups fear U of T’s plans could compromise student, faculty and staff health and safety, and are calling for greater adoption of online education.

Five U of T unions and the UTFA launched a petition called “U of T’s Reopening Plan is NOT Safe Enough. We Need to Take Fall 2020 Online.” As of Monday, its third day online, it had garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

“We believe that in-person teaching is normally the most effective, valuable form of pedagogy; however, it cannot come at the cost of community safety,” the petition says. “Until the time that community safety can be ensured, we must perform whatever work we can remotely.”

Many major Canadian universities – including McGill, Queen’s and the University of Alberta – have chosen to hold their fall semesters online, with the exception of specific cases that require in-person interactions, such as labs.

U of T’s recently released pandemic road map says “plans are being developed for a Fall term that mixes smaller, on-campus seminars, labs, and experiential learning with larger online and remote courses and lectures.”

Individual U of T faculties are currently responsible for planning their fall semesters, said Terezia Zoric, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association. Some, such as Applied Science and Engineering have committed to delivering all of their courses online, but the Faculty of Arts and Science and others are asking some professors to teach in a “dual-delivery” model.

Under this model, classes will be split into online and in-person sections. The size of classes will be “set at the limit allowable according to physical distancing measurements for the assigned room,” a Faculty of Arts and Science memo to staff explained. Students must sit at least two metres apart and a video stream of professors’ lectures will be synchronously delivered to students who either chose remote learning or are unable to find room in class.

The university’s media relations department said U of T will provide two non-medical masks “for every faculty, librarian, staff and student returning to campus.”

On July 14, U of T president Meric Gertler sent a memo to the university community explaining that “at least one-third of our undergraduate courses will have an in-person component.” In some divisions, more than half of courses could include “an in-person option,” he wrote, adding that U of T anticipates “a higher proportion” of its graduate courses could be offered in person.

The Faculty of Arts and Science has not told The Globe exactly how many of its professors will teach under the dual-delivery model, and how it has chosen which ones will do so.

“It’s not clear to me why we wouldn’t just go in the direction that basically every other university in Canada is going and just go fully online in the fall,” said Felan Parker, an assistant professor of book and media studies at the U of T’s St. Michael’s College. Prof. Parker is able to teach remotely in the fall, but is concerned for colleagues who might not have the option.

The university’s media relations department said in an e-mailed statement that its “first priority remains the health and safety of our community,” adding that it anticipates the majority of its employees will keep working remotely into the fall. The statement also added that “approximately 90 per cent of [fall] undergraduate courses have an online option, and most of these courses will be online only.”

U of T’s plans to allow some in-person teaching are causing tension as Stage 3 reopening is delayed in Toronto due to COVID-19 case counts and warnings of a second wave of the virus.

“I’ve never had so many members contact the faculty association scared and upset as I do over this issue,” Ms. Zoric said. “They feel like they’re not being respected or listened to or protected.”

She said many of her members, especially in the Faculty of Arts and Science, “will be teaching in person even though they don’t want to.” About 50 per cent of the university’s faculty is over age 50, she added.

Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the university’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is concerned the university’s dual-delivery model ignores the risk of aerosol transmission of COVID-19. Professors and students in class would need to project their voices to be heard, he said, while custodian and cleaning staff would have to work in unsafe environments.

“The aerosols are probably where super spreader events happen,” Dr. Fisman said. “And super spreader events happen in closed, close and crowded settings like university dorms and classrooms.”

Ms. Zoric and Dr. Fisman suggest U of T adopts plans similar to Ontario universities such as Queen’s and McMaster, which have gone mostly online.

“U of T is located in the riskiest, most dangerous city in the country, but the university’s plan is the most ambitious and the most risky,” Ms. Zoric said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

The petition also said the unions, the UTFA, U of T’s 50 joint health and safety committees, and experts from U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health had not been meaningfully consulted about fall plans. They asked for consultation and greater involvement.

In an e-mailed statement, U of T’s media relations department said university officials “provided information to all joint health and safety committees regarding university re-entry planning.” The university also said in a previous letter that it had consulted with some experts from the school of public health.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to the U of T faculty association as a union.

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