As McGill prepared to return to campus earlier this year, it became increasingly clear that guidelines given by the administration did not particularly favour the wishes of students and faculties. Several weeks into the semester, these concerns continue to develop. This is the second installment of the Daily’s recurring column exploring the relationship between McGill administration and the broader McGill community.
Soon after McGill transitioned to remote instruction in March 2020, graduate students employed by the university began to express concern over their working conditions. On top of their usual duties, teaching assistants (TAs), graders, and invigilators now had to assist professors with the technology required for online learning; last-minute changes to class syllabi also resulted in longer hours and more work for many employees. As reported by the Daily, these factors exacerbated the already-precarious working conditions of graduate students employed at McGill as their extra labour went uncompensated. Concerns over remuneration continued when the university’s dysfunctional HR program, Workday, resulted in overdue payments for many TAs. The Daily spoke with a representative of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) about how working conditions have changed since McGill’s return to in-person schooling.
In an interview with the Daily, PGSS Secretary-General Kristi Kouchakji wrote that accommodations are often inaccessible to graduate students even outside of a pandemic context. Student employees have difficulty extending their academic accommodations to their role as an employee, per Kouchakji.HR tells students seeking accommodations that they should speak with the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), but the OSD, which Kouchakji emphasized is “extremely underfunded and understaffed and doing their best,” sends the students back to HR because they’re asking for accommodations in an employment context. The conflicting messages from HR and the OSD can prolong an accommodation request for so long that a student employee’s contract will end before they see an approval of their request, Kouchakji said. Additionally, academic accommodations often end once the student has finished their coursework – as such, students who have ceased day-to-day coursework in order to research and write a dissertation or prepare for a qualifying exam no longer receive support from the OSD. Moreover, Kouchakji asserted that graduate studies at McGill has “a culture of ableism and exceptionalism” that makes it hard for students to advocate for necessary accommodations.
This history of bureaucratic red tape interfering with accommodation requests means that McGill has been left woefully unprepared to provide accommodations in the presence of COVID-19. HR is responsible for determining the validity of an accommodation request, according to an August 29 memorandum from Provost Christopher Manfredi; per Kouchakji, “the barrier is often so systemically ingrained that it’s just less effort [for HR] to deny the accommodation request as invalid.” As the university indicates on the COVID-19 FAQs webpage, students who cannot come to campus this semester may need to “adjust their registration, defer, or take a leave of absence.” Graduate students are no exception: “we [the PGSS] have in fact seen cases where immunocompromised students, students with vulnerable people at home, and students unable to join us in-person on time […] have been told to take a leave of absence or to withdraw from their degrees entirely rather than be given any kind of accommodation,” Kouchakji said. “It’s not humane, it’s not equitable, it’s not inclusive,” she concluded.
Interactions with Administration
When asked if graduate students have expressed concern over the possibility of losing job or research opportunities on account of advocating for remote learning, Kouchakji said that she hopes the advocacy of PGSS Council will prevent a shortage of research assistant and TA positions. However, she noted that employees are still in a “tough position,” and interpreted Manfredi’s memo as being “extremely clear that there will be very serious repercussions for people who choose to work remotely.” This has led many people to reconsider their career plans, Kouchakji claimed. She went on to say that “ultimately, the whole situation is really disappointing.” The university chose to “send out a five-page memo literally telling people that we don’t care about any vulnerable people in their homes” instead of approaching the return to campus with compassion.
Kouchakji also said that pressure to be on campus may cause reluctance to honestly fill out COVID-19 self-assessment forms. “Who wants to be dealing with possible Covid [sic] symptoms, and long lines at test centres, and a possible investigation for having done the right thing in a climate where doing that is apparently automatic grounds for suspicion?” she asked. Furthermore, the university’s return-to-campus plans neglect the fact that COVID-19 is caused by an airborne pathogen, according to Kouchakji; additionally, it does not recognize that “we are living in an interconnected, interdependent society that extends well beyond the so-called McGill bubble,” she said.
General COVID-related developments
On October 16, the university announced that it would be holding a vaccination clinic on the dates of October 21 and October 27. While this information was not included in the Daily’s first column, “Faculty Mandated to Teach In-Person,” this omission is not due to an error on the part of the Daily. The announcement came too late for the editorial board to correct the article prior to its printing and distribution on Monday, October 18, as the Daily’s office is inaccessible over the weekend. Nevertheless, we would like to clarify that the university has now offered vaccination clinics on two occasions.
In other news, the university requires proof of vaccination to enter libraries as of Wednesday, October 27. To access the library, students may present either their official Quebec vaccine passport, or the McGill fast-pass sticker which grants access to libraries, dining halls, and athletics centers, among other venues. Students must register their vaccine passport with the library in order to receive a fast-pass sticker – consult the university’s webpage “Vaccine Passports at the Library” for registration locations and times.
On October 26, the Faculty of Arts passed a motion granting the Faculty – not the university’s broader administrative body – authority over mode of instruction, according to graduate student Rine Vieth. The Daily will examine the consequences of this motion throughout our coverage of COVID-19 at McGill.
If you have safety concerns or other tips regarding the return to in-person instruction, email us at email@example.com