Statement from OUWCC Chair David Simao and CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn regarding Ministry of Colleges and Universities directives on re-opening post-secondary institutions in September.

No amount of magical thinking on Doug Ford’s or Minister Jill Dunlop’s part will make the risk of transmission fall to a level that allows universities to simply throw open the doors and behave as if COVID-19 is no longer a threat that needs to be taken seriously.

We can all appreciate the fact that people are tired. For nearly two years, most Ontarians have stepped up and made tremendous sacrifices in the service of fighting this pandemic, but this government’s hands off approach to resuming in person instruction dishonours those sacrifices and threatens to undo the progress we have made to date, at perhaps the most crucial moment in this pandemic.

While vaccinations have helped to turn the tide against the pandemic, the progress made to date is not a signal to take a victory lap. Like every organism, the virus which causes COVID-19 evolves. Unlike other organisms, viruses—and this virus in particular—evolves and mutates at an incredibly rapid pace. Already, the Delta Variant—a far more virulent and contagious strain of the virus which causes COVID 19—is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus. Delta represents a profound threat to the progress Ontarians have achieved thus far.

In spite of this Government’s many stumbles, Ontarians have responded heroically to the call to be vaccinated, but vaccinations alone will not bring an end to this pandemic, especially in congregate settings like universities, where large numbers of people live and work concentrated into a small area. Only a robust program that encompasses all aspects of pandemic health and safety measure will put Ontario’s post-secondary institutions on the path a safe September. Such a program must include the following:

  • ensuring and enforcing social distancing,
  • upgrading antiquated building ventilation systems to meet minimum recommended air exchange levels,
  • reducing occupancy levels in buildings, classrooms and other workspaces
  • understanding the unique needs of post-secondary education, providing students and instructors – particularly those who are medically vulnerable – with the option of learning and teaching remotely
  • Insisting post-secondary administrations undertake meaningful consultations with unions representing their workers within a given workspace, and engage their respective Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs) on their reopening protocols.

None of these are unreasonable. Combined with a provincial effort to ensure every student and employee who wants to be vaccinated, is vaccinated, these efforts provide Ontario’s students and university workers with the best possible opportunity to make a safe September a reality.

Sadly, from what we have learned in the media, none of these things appear to exist in the directive sent by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to administrations. Regrettably, the Ministry continues to refuse to engage unions like CUPE, which represents tens of thousands of frontline university workers, in any discussions on the safe return to campus and we reiterate our call for the full involvement of workers’ and students’ organizations in the development of province-wide standards for reopening. No less is needed to protect students and workers from unnecessary exposure to what remains a dangerous, highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.

A window of opportunity exists for the Ford Conservatives to pivot away from their reckless, hands off, head in the sand approach to reopening universities. But that window is rapidly closing. We urge the Ford Conservatives to go through the window while they still can, for every Ontarians’ sake.

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