The Fall 2020 semester has been a challenge for every member of the McGill community. Students have struggled to adapt to online courses while also navigating new pressures on mental and physical health, financial strain during an economic crisis, and the widely mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic. On top of these external issues, the McGill administration is providing vague and last-minute information, leaving students out of difficult decisions that directly impact them.
Though the pandemic is worsening in Quebec and abroad, the University has not introduced any of the academic relief measures provided in the Winter 2020 semester, when infection and death rates were significantly lower. The University’s confirmed case count seems to exclude infections from mandatory off-campus events that students would not otherwise have attended, including many course activities in the Health Sciences faculty. McGill has also increased tuition for international students, stretching budgets even further during an unprecedented global health crisis. Additionally, many universities, including Concordia, Polytechnique, and l’Université de Sherbrooke, have extended their winter breaks. An email sent to students on Friday, November 20 states that McGill is considering extending its winter break as well, and the McGill senate will release an official decision on December 2. As students, we must keep the pressure on the administration to see this through.
McGill needs to listen to student demands and act in our best interest. The University must implement the following measures:
Extend winter break
McGill’s 2020 winter break is only 12 days long – four days shorter than the 2019 winter break. A period of 12 days is not long enough for students to complete the 14-day quarantine period, severely limiting students’ abilities to travel home safely. The current 12-day break will be especially detrimental to those students who have not been able to return home in many months.
Students have circulated a petition backed by SSMU requesting an extension of the break. McGill has announced that they will be making a decision about winter break on December 2. Even if the administration does approve an extended break, McGill has already confirmed that students in the Ingram School of Nursing and other Health Science programs will be specifically excluded from this change, and have already been discouraged from leaving Montreal. The break is crucial for those in the Health Sciences programs, as they must balance the risk to their patients, participation in mandatory clinical sessions, and the ability to see their families.
An extended winter break is a necessity for all students. It is just as critical for instructors, who will be expected to produce final grades as well as plan the upcoming semester during the holidays.
Bring back academic relief
The policies McGill implemented at the end of the Winter 2020 semester were helpful for many students and allowed them to prioritise their safety and mental well-being without sacrificing their academic standing. The unrestricted S/U policy was intended to help students manage the shift into remote learning during pandemic restrictions that, at the time, many assumed would be short term. The lack of academic support during McGill’s first entirely remote semester suggests that students are expected to have returned to full academic and working capacity, despite widespread reports of Zoom fatigue, mental and physical exhaustion, and personal difficulties related to the pandemic. Without proper study spaces, students have continued to work from their homes, which, for many, severely limits their ability to focus or even work at all – a large number of students live in drastically different time zones, in homes where it is impossible to maintain a quiet work space, or with unreliable internet. In light of these difficulties, students have created a petition demanding that McGill reinstate academic relief policies.
Other institutions have implemented these measures, including Bishop’s University, which has announced that it is implementing an S/U option this semester. McGill has offered academic relief before, and has a responsibility to do it again.
Make courses more accessible
McGill needs to listen to student demands, seek student feedback, and prepare to actually implement the requested changes, including fewer and more flexible assignments. While McGill has released guidelines for assessments in the winter semester that include fewer assignments, these changes should be universal. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) and other student services are more difficult to access than ever. The administration’s announcements regarding the Winter semester are confusing, making it difficult for students to know what to expect from their courses. As students, we are being left in the dark about decisions that affect us, our studies, and our physical safety.
Though there are emergency online library sharing programs, the McGill library’s physical catalogue is unavailable to many students, who can’t always afford to purchase expensive textbooks. SSMU is offering alternatives, but they shouldn’t have to. McGill needs to provide free and accessible course materials for students, so that full participation doesn’t require payment on top of increased tuition.
McGill should ensure that students are accommodated not just by the OSD, but also their professors. Students have reported instructors being unable to provide the standard quiz and test accommodations that would be available in a typical semester. This is unacceptable, and the University should prioritize introducing proper accommodations and academic accessibility; universal learning practices should not be optional for professors.
Further, McGill must provide better opportunities for students to give feedback, as Town Halls and other public forums are often inaccessible, and do not centre student concerns. Students need a streamlined way to report accessibility issues within their classes.
It is vital that McGill listens to student needs, especially now. If you have concerns about a professor violating your student rights during online learning, you can contact SSMU VP University Affairs, Brooklyn Frizzle, at email@example.com. If you have the time to do so, fill out anonymous course evaluations, complete departmental feedback forms, or give professors feedback directly if you feel comfortable doing so. Though at times it can be slow and frustrating, the first step to implementing change is to voice your concerns. To express your feelings about any aspect of the current student experience, contact the Office of the Dean of Students at firstname.lastname@example.org. For continued updates on McGill’s COVID-19 measures, visit https://www.mcgill.ca/coronavirus/.