Health & Safety Concerns with Return to Campus and Open Letter to President Rhonda Lenton

At a Special General Membership Meeting held Thursday September 2, members discussed their serious concerns about the employer's refusal to consider the safety concerns of our members in relation to the planned return to campus. In the end, members adopted two motions which laid out YUFA's position on the return to campus.

The first motion reads as follows:

YUFA affirms members' right to refuse unsafe work and receive adequate accommodations on heath and family status grounds and academic units' rights to decide mode of delivery. The current intrusive, hostile, and drawn-out process of applying for accommodations and the frequent denials of requests that it produces have not worked and have not respected the rights of members, academic units, or the collegial governance of the university.

After approving this motion YUFA met with the employer and conveyed the anger and frustration which members expressed at the membership meeting. After lengthy discussions the employer stated it is looking into the family status and other accommodations requests and indicated it will consider YUFA's assertion of our members' rights to adopt remote modes of delivery on the grounds of accommodation and other reasons. At our urging the employer said they will review their facilities planning and look at ways to incorporate social distancing in classrooms and public spaces. The return to in-person teaching is scheduled for Sept 13, and it is YUFA's intention to follow up our discussion with the employer well in advance of that date and report back to members.

The second motion called for the adoption by YUFA of a more detailed statement that has been circulating at York and receiving signatures over the past week. The statement lays out the case for a protocol for returning to campus safely and that respects the choices and rights of employees.

Open Letter to President Rhonda Lenton on Return to Campus

In just a few days, the new academic year is set to begin at York University. Thousands of students and university workers will return to campus for the first time in 18 months as part of York’s “phased return” to in-person learning, with little to no choice about their learning or working conditions. While the York administration has emphasized “safety” as the guiding principle in its efforts to return to in-person learning, York’s ‘safety plans’ fail to account for the heightened danger posed by the reality of the Delta variant. Given the lack of a credible plan from the York administration, we demand that all course directors (CDs), teaching assistants (TAs), and staff be given the right to opt for remote work, instead of being told to return to an unsafe workplace.

Despite strong vaccine uptake in Canada, only 63% of Ontarians between the ages of 18 and 29 are fully vaccinated so far. This means that approximately 37% of Ontarians in this age group are minimally protected or not protected at all against COVID-19. As of 25 August 2021, according to Public Health Ontario data, the 20-29 year age group reported both the highest rates of laboratory-confirmed infection and the highest test positivity rates. Furthermore, 17% of ICU admissions and 23% of hospitalizations in Ontario are among vaccinated individuals. Recent CDC data demonstrates the decreased effectiveness of mRNA vaccines against the delta variant over time, and current modeling predicts there will be 1,000 cases in the province by the start of the Fall 2021 term and close to 7,000 by October after schools and universities reopen. These grim facts have prompted Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) Kieran Moore to state that “it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter.”

We agree that vaccination is a necessary and important component in ensuring public health and safety, but as the above facts and figures indicate, vaccination alone will not be enough to prevent a fourth wave of hospitalization and serious illness. York’s ventilation standards are currently below those required to prevent the spread of airborne viruses, and the university administration remains unwilling to invest in our collective safety by refusing to provide students, staff, and faculty with adequate PPE (i.e. KN95s or N95s) to prevent infection.

In addition, York’s plan also does not take into account that York is largely a commuter campus, where students and staff will be forced onto cramped transit to get to campus, and will return to their communities where they may expose others to the virus. Existing accommodation policies for workers and students remain woefully inadequate, and do not account for proximity to vulnerable populations as a reason for accommodation. As Ontario enters a Delta-driven fourth wave, York University risks becoming a key site of COVID-19 transmission, threatening the health and lives of the York University community and neighbouring communities and regions.

We reject the callous logic of ‘living with COVID’ (as stated in the August 11 Town Hall) that is currently informing the university’s planning. It does not have to be this way. While we all agree that in-person learning is preferable to remote delivery, since mid-March 2020 York’s workers and students have risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic, and the university has continued to be an exceptional centre of learning and research. It is entirely possible, indeed desirable, to continue to operate remotely until it is actually safe to return to campus.

To these ends, we demand that:

1) All professors, librarians, post-doctoral fellows, course directors, teaching assistants, and staff be given the right to opt for remote work. The choice of delivery method should include personal and community safety considerations given the nature of the Delta variant (and the potential risk of long-COVID, hospitalization, and death even among the vaccinated or transmission to unvaccinated individuals in households); pedagogical considerations; in addition to the existing (very narrowly) defined medical/family exemptions.

2) York must provide adequate PPE to those who choose to come to campus. At minimum, this should include the provision of KN95/N95 masks and other relevant PPE to the campus community, and educating students and staff about the much greater efficacy of these masks relative to cloth and surgical masks in limiting transmission of airborne viruses. This includes mandating mask wearing on campus and developing appropriate mechanisms for ensuring compliance that does not generate conflict between faculty, staff, and students.

3) Regular PCR testing for partially vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff. The University should also institute at least weekly rapid antigen testing for all members of the campus community to identify potential asymptomatic carriers even among the vaccinated.

4) Mandatory vaccination for everyone accessing campus, including proof of vaccination. This includes education of all community members about transmissibility of the Delta variant even among those who are double-vaccinated. As already mentioned, vaccines are necessary, but not sufficient to ensure the safety of the York community (and the broader communities to which we belong).

5) York will provide transparent ventilation audits of each classroom that it expects a worker to work in. This includes rigorous application of ASHRAE standards for pandemics in all hallways, classrooms, offices, etc., including a full and transparent ventilation audit whose results will be accessible via a dedicated and easily searchable website covering each room at York. Air-circulation should take place during classes and not only between classes. A full list of measures and best practices that the University should adopt are included in this Health and Safety Checklist.

6) The maintenance of social distancing regulations and capacity limits for classrooms. Retaining existing social distancing protocols and capacity limits tailored to each room (i.e. 25% of capacity) for in-person courses, the library, York Lanes, office spaces, etc. All safety measures should align with evidence-based solutions and the latest science to meaningfully address the reality of airborne transmission.

7) Contact tracing, reporting and establishing defined case thresholds as a means for determining whether or not campus is safe to access. The development of a contact tracing app that all members of the York community can use while on campus, as well as daily and transparent reporting of case numbers in the York community via the app, including affected buildings/sites. Clear case-rate thresholds should be established for when all on-campus activities will revert to virtual/online format.

We also call on faculty Deans and department Chairs to endorse these demands and show understanding for members who prefer to teach remotely.