Returning to Campus Unprepared Will Harm Our Communities

McGill administration forces return to in-person learning without protection for students and staff

On January 14, McGill administration announced that the majority of in-person classes and teaching activities would resume starting January 24. While the Omicron variant remains rampant, the university’s decision to return to in-person learning endangers students, instructors, staff, and the surrounding community. The decision reflects the administration’s attitude towards vulnerable communities at the university.

McGill’s return to in-person teaching is exceptionally premature when compared to other Canadian universities. As of this week, Concordia will remain online through February 2. UBC, McMaster University, and Western University are also choosing to remain at least partially remote until February. Queen’s University, the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Manitoba are remaining online until after their respective reading weeks. It is irresponsible for the McGill administration to lessen restrictions at this time, as the public healthcare system in Quebec and Canada continues to collapse. 

Cases in Quebec continue to rise, reaching alarming highs not seen at any other point in the pandemic. Even still, these case counts are likely inaccurate; due to high demand and dwindling capacity, Quebec public health has restricted the general public’s access to testing. As of January 4, PCR testing is restricted to select groups – including those in hospitals, long-term care homes, detention centres and homeless shelters. Consequently, public health experts claim that the province’s case counts from the past several weeks are likely an underestimate. While public health is now encouraging people to use rapid antigen tests, these tests are far less accurate and can be difficult to find at pharmacies in Montreal, given their high demand. It is thus virtually impossible for most students and staff at McGill to get accurately tested. Without a definitive positive test result, individuals may not know that they need to quarantine, placing any contacts at a greater risk of infection. Given the already existing inaccuracies in case counts, McGill’s case management is unlikely to be able to accurately assess and respond to the spread of the virus on campus. 

The unprecedented rise in cases has put Montreal’s hospitals at maximum capacity. CBC reports that health authorities in nine regions of the province estimate that hospitals have now far exceeded Level-4 capacity (the highest alert level), which means COVID-19 patients now occupy all the extra beds that were freed up to accommodate the Omicron wave. This unexpected strain on the hospital system has had dire consequences – in recent weeks, the McGill University Health Centre has indefinitely postponed serious operations, including cancer and heart surgeries, in order to free up beds for those suffering from COVID-19. On Tuesday, Quebec health authorities announced that if the current wave continues at the same pace, “the province could eventually move toward lowering the standard of care provided to all patients across the network to avoid reaching a point where some can’t access care at all.” Should an individual contract COVID-19 on campus and need to be hospitalized, the university would be putting even more strain on the already overrun hospital system, endangering the entire surrounding community on a city and province-wide scale. Worse yet, it is likely that with this pressure on healthcare workers, patients will not be able to receive the typical standard of care. 

In a January 14 announcement, Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau relied on the Legault administration’s claim that “Quebec may have hit its peak in cases and hospitalizations will likely soon begin to stabilize.” This statement invites skepticism – inability to test the general public and resulting inaccurate case counts mean possible fallacy in projections for the future. Furthermore, the Montreal Gazette reports that researchers who conducted simulations for the future spread of the virus found that only half indicated cases have peaked (or will peak in the coming days), while the other half showed “new cases and new hospitalization would continue to increase for a few more days or weeks.” McGill administration is willing to gamble that the peak of Omicron has passed, rather than take a cautious approach to protect students and staff.

Overall, the administration has taken a callous approach to its community’s safety, dismissing Omicron’s severity. Labeau’s claim in the January 14 email that “nearly all COVID cases in triply vaccinated people are not severe” dismisses the very real concerns that come with contracting the virus regardless of vaccination status – such as the possibility of mild or severe illness, transmission, and long-term effects. Already extremely infectious, Omicron is even more equipped to evade vaccine immunity than other strains. Those on campus who are immunocompromised, chronically ill, and/or unvaccinated are already at greater risk from contracting the virus, a fact completely unaccounted for in the administration’s decision. Aptly put in the circulating open letter from students addressed to administration, “an assumption that most students will not be seriously harmed if infected with COVID-19 is ableist and contributes to McGill’s devaluing of disabled students and community members.” 

McGill’s return to in-person is not only ill-informed, but also ill-prepared. The university will not be providing N95 or KN95 masks, which are far more effective than other masks at protecting against Omicron. At a January 19 Senate meeting, McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier commented that  “those higher level masks are very uncomfortable. You will not expect a person to wear them for a long period of time, so what people tend to do is move them around.” This was said in an attempt to justify the continued provision of lower-quality procedural masks instead of N95s or KN95s without providing evidence of McGill students refusing to wear higher-quality face coverings. Alongside Fortier’s quotes from a “top doctor” that she could not name suggesting that Omicron is a “live vaccine virus,” the Principal’s comments were broad, unfounded claims about both the virus and the student body. 

To advocate for a safe and equitable delayed return to in-person, sign and circulate this open letter. If you are able to attend in-person classes, share your notes with students who cannot come to campus through the OSD or informally via myCourses and class group chats. If you are an instructor, consider and incorporate the accommodations that students are requesting: provide online alternatives and recordings for lectures, have flexible attendance requirements, and generally make your classes easily accessible to students remotely. Both PGSS and SSMU will be distributing CA-N95 and FN-95 masks to high-risk students on a pay-what-you-can basis. If you are not already boosted, you can find information and make an appointment to do so here