Virtual Town Hall answers community’s questions on University pandemic plans

Vari pond
Vari pond

A Virtual Town Hall meeting held April 2 and led by York University President Rhonda L. Lenton gave students, staff and faculty the opportunity to raise questions and concerns on how the University will move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Livestreamed to the community, the event aimed to create an open forum to address questions on academic, research and professional work, as well as general operations and plans. Community members were asked to submit questions in advance, or to email questions during the hour-long afternoon session.

A Virtual Town Hall meeting held April 2 and led by York University President Rhonda L. Lenton gave students, staff and faculty the opportunity to raise questions and concerns on how the University will move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Virtual Town Hall meeting held April 2 with: (top, right to left) Vice-President Finance and Administration Carol McAulay, Vice-President Academic and Provost Lisa Philipps, Interim Vice-President Research and Innovation Rui Wang; and (bottom, right to left) York University President Rhonda L. Lenton, Vice-President Equity, People & Culture Sheila Cote-Meek and Vice-President Advancement Jeff O’Hagan

Joined by the senior leadership team – Vice-President Academic and Provost Lisa Philipps, Vice-President Finance and Administration Carol McAulay, Interim Vice-President Research and Innovation Rui Wang, Vice-President Advancement Jeff O’Hagan and Vice-President Equity, People & Culture Sheila Cote-Meek – Lenton began by commending the York community for adapting to a rapidly evolving and unprecedented situation with creativity and commitment.

“York University, over the past few weeks, has shown incredible leadership,” Lenton said. “I want to say thank you to the entire community … I’ve been incredibly moved by what I’ve seen in terms of generosity of spirit and creativity in coming together to respond to this pandemic.”

Citing the rapid switch to remote learning, virtual labs, and innovative solutions to continuing research and maintaining accessibility, Lenton said these efforts highlight that “York is an anchor institution in our communities.”

Before fielding questions, Lenton was candid in saying the University does not have all the answers, and attention by senior leadership has been turned to scenario planning for the fall to anticipate what the needs and risks could be depending on whether a return to face-to-face instruction will be possible.

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

The first question posed asked how long this situation might last and what the plans are for reintegration when pandemic restrictions are lifted. Lenton said the University is following the government’s lead in terms of a reduction in strategies to flatten the curve. Philipps added that the decision for fall can’t be made yet, and that would possibly come mid-summer. The University has developed emergency financial bursaries and is in the process of establishing a more robust COVID-19 relief fund to support the University community.

Concerns over clinical hours and in-person lab and research requirements were raised, and senior leadership assured that alternate solutions are being offered where possible with virtual labs and simulations. However, there may still be disruption to some students.

“This is very important to achieving learning outcomes and many strategies are being pursued … to provide students with at least some of that experience,” said Philipps. She added that some course material may be reorganized to allow students to do some of the hands-on, in-person requirements at a later date when pandemic restrictions are lifted.

It was also noted that thesis deadlines for grad students have been extended by 30 days, without additional fees, and the University is examining how it can ensure students continue to progress in their programs.

Responding to questions on spring convocation, which traditionally takes place in June, Lenton assured the community of graduating students that there will be options to participate in a virtual ceremony in June or to attend the fall convocation in October.

“We have in effect come up with the best-of-both-worlds solution,” she said. “We will be inviting those graduating in June to the October ceremonies, and we are going to expand that convocation. We also recognize that some students won’t be able to return (in the fall) and … we are also working on a virtual convocation in June and we are looking at ways to make that meaningful.”

Community members also asked for assurances on providing for students requiring accommodations, as well as whether there would be an increase in resources with respect to counselling and support services for students, staff and faculty.

“As a community, we all share responsibility to support each other and in particular support our students,” said Lenton, adding that counselling and support services remain open and are fully accessible online.

Students requiring accommodations, and those needing new accommodations to adapt to remote learning, should first contact their course instructor, then program director, associate dean’s office and, if necessary, the registrar’s office. Response times may be longer than usual, due to the current circumstances.

Questions on job security were also front of mind for community members, who asked about contract and compensation stability, as well as potential layoffs. Lenton took a firm stand that the health and well-being of employees are priorities, and the University is investigating all options to mitigate risks with respect to job security.

“It’s challenging without knowing what the next several months will look like,” she said, adding the University is looking at creative solutions and has plan to discuss those with the unions. One example, she said, would be to explore personal development opportunities and short-term redeployment of staff to areas of high need. “This is not only a way to solve potential gaps but it could be an opportunity for staff to learn new skills,” she said.

As well, contracts for those paid hourly were recently extended, and close attention will be given to any opportunities provided by the government to bridge compensation gaps that might arise.

Employee engagement was also addressed, and the community was assured the University plans to continue expanding additional resources to help students, staff and facility stay connected to their work and their colleagues. Some examples include a new ‘Going Remote’ service that will be offered by the Teaching Commons @ York, and the continued efforts by the Libraries to offer digital and virtual services.

To see the full webcast of the April 2 Virtual Town Hall visit https://conversations.info.yorku.ca/first-page/webcast/.

By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, deputy editor, YFile