On Monday, January 17, the Social Work Student Association (SWSA) held a special General Assembly (GA) to discuss a resolution proposing that Social Work students go on strike from January 24 to February 25. The resolution, written and presented by U3 student Jo Roy, states that the return to in-person learning would pose “a risk and threat to the communities [Social Work students] serve,” and continues: “We know what is needed now for our students, teachers, and communities we serve. McGill’s administration does not.” Additionally, the resolution calls on students to abstain from attending in-person classes, though participants will still attend online teaching activities and continue completing their fieldwork placements.
The School of Social Work (SSW) had previously decided that courses would be delivered remotely through the end of February, as announced in a January 4 email from the School’s Director, Nico Trocmé. However, on January 6, students were told that the School had been directed to return in-person along with other departments. “I regret to announce that I have been told by the university that our School does not have the authority to decide to extend on-line [sic] course delivery beyond January 21st,” Trocmé wrote in a schoolwide email. “Please be assured that we will continue to advocate for teaching conditions that best meet the needs of our professional programs.” Trocmé did not respond to the Daily’s request for elaboration on why the university instructed the School not to extend the duration of remote learning.
Student concerns: mandatory fieldwork, hybrid learning, and accreditation
Achieving a degree in Social Work requires conducting fieldwork to gain practical experience – as such, many U2 and U3 students are currently working in hospitals, long-term care centres (CHSLDs), local community service centres (CLSCs), or other institutions outside of the university to fulfill this requirement. This makes a return to in-person learning at this time particularly problematic for Social Work students, per Roy: “It’s the expectation that on Monday we go to our classes, and then Tuesday go to the COVID ward, and then Wednesday we come back into our class and possibly spread COVID around,” they said in an interview with the Daily. Roy, whose current fieldwork placement is in Kahnawá:ke, emphasized that McGill’s decision to send Social Work students back to classrooms puts vulnerable communities at risk. “We already very much are aware of the history of spreading disease to Indigenous communities […] It’s keeping in line with McGill’s history of oppressive hierarchy, of making its own decisions for the sake of its own decisions and power and ego at the expense of vulnerable communities and in this context, at the expense of Indigenous communities, and perpetuating colonialism.” Fieldwork is considered a Tier One teaching activity, so it has continued throughout the pandemic – and despite the high amount of social contacts which fieldwork entails, the university has not offered accommodations or N95 masks to Social Work students, per Roy.
[Returning is] keeping in line with McGill’s history of oppressive hierarchy, of making its own decisions […] at the expense of vulnerable communities, and in this context, at the expense of Indigenous communities.Jo Roy
While students at the GA expressed worries similar to Roy’s – one mentioned their employment in a COVID ward, while another was worried about chronically ill students having to choose between their health and education – students also raised concerns about how a strike would affect their studies, instructors’ workloads, and the School’s upcoming accreditation process. “If we go on strike and the professor’s doing their work only in class […] what is the option to not miss information or course content?” asked a student in the Zoom chat. According to Roy, instructors have “not-so-subtly” indicated support for the students’ strike initiative, so they do not anticipate instructors refusing to offer online course delivery; students would also continue encouraging instructors to record their in-person lectures for the benefit of those remaining online. Codey Martin – a U3 student who, along with Roy, encouraged the school to deliver courses remotely through February – was also troubled by the possibility that the strike could have negative ramifications for students who are about to graduate, but said he was still willing to strike: “Nobody here or within the McGill community is going to force me to forfeit my degree and force me in person.” Roy empathized with Martin, and pointed out that the strike does not call on students to abstain from their education altogether, as Social Work students will continue to participate in online activities while striking from classes conducted in person.
However, the pressure to provide an online option could create more work for course lecturers and other non-tenured academic staff: having to teach both online and in-person students means twice the amount of work for one course. According to Roy, the McGill Course Lecturers and Instructors Union (MCLIU) has encouraged its members not to offer hybrid options for this reason. As such, the strikers are not advocating for a hybrid option – they encourage instructors to remain completely online.
The SSW is preparing to renew its accreditation this year, meaning that the school’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program will be under the scrutiny of the Canadian Association of Social Work Education (CASWE). This fact could work in the favour of striking students, Roy pointed out during the GA: “Is McGill willing to completely risk losing entire cohorts of social workers when we’re already in demand in the field and when we’re in the middle of an accreditation process? […] I don’t think McGill is willing to risk that.” With McGill providing the only English-language BSW program in the province, the university stands to lose an important part of its reputation if it chooses to ignore striking students, or punish them by issuing failing grades.
In the Daily’s follow-up interview with Roy, they elaborated on the strike’s potential impacts on accreditation. CASWE does qualitative assessments of schools’ pedagogy and conducts on-campus visits, they said – if students are absent from classes for a long period of time, or if McGill does not allow them to graduate, it stands to reason that this would negatively affect CASWE’s assessment of the school’s pedagogy. Additionally, social workers are in high demand, Roy pointed out; delaying the graduation of striking students would mean depriving the province of more social workers, and would have bad consequences for the English-language healthcare system in particular. As such, the university has considerable incentive to meet Social Work students’ demands, despite the SSW’s small size.
Despite these concerns, the strike resolution passed with an overwhelming majority in favour. Seventy students voted “yes” to adopting the resolution, while two abstained and three voted “no.” Roy said that they were “ecstatic” upon the passage of the resolution, viewing it as a sign of solidarity and community among Social Work students.
The “Butterfly Effect”
During the GA, Roy also mentioned the support that other student organizations have offered, saying that the strike resolution had inspired a “butterfly effect” within the Faculty of Law and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS). The Faculty of Law held a Town Hall on Friday, January 21, with Dean Robert Leckey to discuss students’ concerns about returning in-person. On Friday, January 28, the Law Students’ Association (LSA) will be holding a Special General Meeting to make a collective decision on how the LSA should proceed with addressing student concerns. “We support students’ wishes to pursue collective action during this difficult time,” the FaceBook Event for the meeting reads.
PGSS expressed support for students’ right to strike in an email exchange with the Daily. PGSS representatives also indicated appreciation for the strike being “a principled and proactive creation of alternative learning conditions” rather than a walkout, which would disrupt students’ education. The SWSA has not reached out to PGSS asking for support, so the Society has not voted to take an explicit position on the strike. Additionally, the Society has listed SSW graduate students who are currently completing fieldwork requirements as part of the top priority group for their distribution of CA-N95s, FN-N95s, and KN95s. They also pointed out that online learning had been deemed pedagogically appropriate by SSW faculty.
Likewise, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) has stated their support for students advocating against unsafe learning conditions. In an email to the Daily, AGSEM President Mario Roy wrote that the Association “stands in solidarity with all members of the McGill community who refuse to be put at risk by the university’s irresponsible decision to return to in-person teaching activities” before the end of the fifth wave. Currently, the union has not voted on the question of whether members should strike themselves.
On January 22, the Education Graduate Students’ Society endorsed a strike from classes on January 24 and January 25, organized by Emma McKay and Katherine Hardin. In an email exchange with the Daily, McKay said they were “distressed” by McGill’s plan to return to in-person school, but was inspired by the SWSA strike because “it demonstrated that [students] weren’t totally out of options. I called Kate and got to work,” they wrote. Additionally, Social Work students shared their tactics with EGSS organizers, McKay said.
Similarly to Social Work undergraduates, graduate Education students often work in high-contact environments. So many EGSS members work in elementary and high schools during the day – sometimes at multiple different schools – that most graduate-level education classes have to be offered in the evening, per McKay and Hardin. This means that most education graduate students have many contacts during the day, so “in-person classes pose a much greater risk to all involved – children in those teachers’ classes included.”
The EGSS strike resolution passed with 86.3 per cent of members in favour. On January 25, EGSS will reconvene in a Special General Assembly to discuss extending the strike until February 25.
If there’s something I’ve learned over the past few years in trying to appreciate and integrate and learn Indigenous ways of knowing, it’s that we [should] be a good relative, and the strike is us being a good relative, I think.Jo Roy
Additionally, a petition has been circulating within the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) requesting a GA to be held for students to vote on whether the AUS should strike. As per Article 17.2 of the AUS Constitution, the petition must reach 200 signatures for a GA to be called. The quorum for a GA concerning a student strike is 500 members. While the AUS did hold a Town Hall on Friday, January 21, Arts Representative Avishai Infeld clarified to the Daily that the Town Hall was not motivated by SWSA’s strike.
Organizers are encouraged by the solidarity that student organizations have offered to SWSA. “Students across campus are making their concerns and their care for each other known. Solidarity keeps us safe!” McKay and Hardin wrote. Likewise, Jo Roy said they were proud of Social Work students for going on strike, and proud of the solidarity which the strike has inspired. “If there’s something I’ve learned over the past few years in trying to appreciate and integrate and learn Indigenous ways of knowing, it’s that we [should] be a good relative, and the strike is us being a good relative, I think,” they concluded.
Faculty and Administration’s response
On January 19, Trocmé shared the School’s response to the strike resolution in an email to Social Work undergraduates. “It is the School’s mandate to urge students to follow the plans for the resumption of in-person teaching set out by the university,” he wrote, after acknowledging the time students had taken to prepare and pass the strike resolution. Per Trocmé’s email, Social Work instructors will be encouraged to be flexible and accommodating to students who do not attend class in-person. Additionally, the SSW has created a working committee to address student concerns, chaired by Michael MacKenzie, a professor of Social Work, Psychiatry and Pediatrics. Trocmé concluded his email with a reminder that “The need for new social workers is more pressing than ever. Let’s work together to make this term […] an effective learning experience.”
In a roundtable interview with Associate Provost Christopher Buddle and Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau on January 21, Buddle responded to questions about the strike. While answering a question from The McGill Tribune about how the university plans to resolve the strike, Buddle said he understood the SWSA to be participating in a “boycott,” and continued that “it’s really about students making a decision […] to not attend in-person teaching activities […] and students have always had a choice whether or not to come to class.” He also said that he questions the narrative that the university is unsafe: “because of the layers of protection we have in place, we’re very confident that the university is an environment [where] we can effectively teach our activities in person.”
In an email to the Daily, Roy clarified that SWSA’s action is a strike, not a boycott. “Our strike organizers see Buddle’s statement as an effort to diminish the power behind our collective decision to strike,” they wrote. “We are on strike from in person classes until at least February 25th, there is no other fact than that.”
The Daily also inquired about why the School had been directed to return in-person despite the passage of an October Arts Faculty Council motion and the Course Delivery Parameters established by McGill’s Senate – both of which affirm faculties’ ability to determine the mode of course delivery. Buddle clarified that the Course Delivery Parameters do not constitute a “blanket statement” which allows programs to make their own decisions regarding in-person or remote learning. “It’s not the point of the university overturning [the SSW’s] decision. It’s really a point of having the conversation within the faculty, within programs around the balance of in-person and online,” he continued. Roy, who chairs the SSW’s Committee on Accessible Education, disagreed with Buddle. “Central admin denied [the SSW’s decision to remain online], eliminating our ability to choose and even have a conversation about it. The conversations have been had, McGill just refuses to listen,” they wrote.
The Daily will continue to cover student concerns about the return to in-person activities. If you have thoughts about the return to campus, or a tip to share, please email email@example.com.
A previous edition of this article characterized the statement from PGSS as “explicit support” for the strike when the Society has not taken a position on the strike. The article has been amended to reflect this fact – the Daily regrets this error.