Details on next stage of the pandemic reopening covered in latest town hall

During the fourth All-Community Virtual Town Hall on Aug. 6, community members were able to pose questions to the University’s senior leadership about Stage 3 of the pandemic reopening plan, the fall and winter terms, research activities, academic integrity, tuition fees and more.

Rhonda L. Lenton

Rhonda L. Lenton

The event, which was hosted on Zoom by President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton, is part of an ongoing series designed to keep the University community informed of developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The fourth session included Provost and Vice-President Academic Lisa Philipps, Vice-President Finance & Administration Carol McAulay, Vice-President Research & Innovation Amir Asif, and Vice-Provost Students Lucy Fromowitz.

In her opening remarks, Lenton spoke about the recent announcement that the city of Toronto would move into Stage 3 in the province’s pandemic plan and what that would mean for York University. She characterized Stage 3 as a major transition. “It is essential to recognize that while this means that restrictions will loosen, the pandemic is an ongoing challenge and it is expected to be with us for some time,” said Lenton. “Stage 3 does allow for the gradual reopening of spaces under certain conditions. For York University, this means that we need to look at each of these conditions to see how we can best implement them within the terms of our own gradual reopening plans.”

She went on to explain that the complex list conditions set out by the province and public health had implications and presented logistical puzzles for the province’s colleges and universities. Lenton highlighted that work was underway to review all the Stage 3 requirements and get the details ironed out and communicated as quickly as possible to students, faculty, and staff.  “We are continuing to work closely with government on the interpretation of the public health guidelines for higher educations and we will be regularly updating the community,” she said, noting that updates would continue to be posted on the YU Better Together website.

Lisa Philipps

The president reiterated that the fall term would be delivered primarily online with only a select number of courses approved for in-person activities. “We also anticipate that most of our employees will continue to work remotely during this upcoming fall semester,” said Lenton adding that immediate priorities are to fulfill the core teaching and research activities at the University.

Lenton and Philipps praised the entire University community for their ongoing support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They also spoke about how impressed they were with the energy and enthusiasm displayed by faculty who have embraced online learning tools and displayed a deep commitment to delivering a meaningful online learning experience for students.

With respect to the winter term, both Lenton and Philipps reiterated that conversations with the Senate of York University were ongoing about the fall provisions and winter term planning, with all discussions  conducted through the lens of public health and a variety of course delivery models being considered. “We understand that learning happens in many ways,” said Philipps. “We are developing plans to clarify what the winter term is most likely to look like.” She noted that continued and careful monitoring of all developments related to the pandemic was ongoing.

Lucy Fromowitz

A question about when non-required staff would be required to return to campus was answered by Lenton, who said that it would be in the best interests for the community that non-required staff who can work from home should continue to work from home during the fall term. She made note of the situation experienced by other countries that rushed reopening, saying that until a vaccine was in place, there were important lessons on the need for a measured, thoughtful approach to resuming regular activities. She highlighted that the status of the winter term working arrangements for staff would be done in concert with guidance from public health and any changes communicated well in advance.

Responding to a question about international students coming to York University, Fromowitz outlined the comprehensive plan for international students to assist them with quarantine requirements. These arrangements include an off-campus hotel to accommodate the 14-day quarantine requirements, a 24-hour shuttle to transport incoming students from the airport to the hotel quarantine site, wellness supports, health checks and regular contact with staff from the Division of Students.

For domestic students without computers or study space, Fromowitz said the University will continue to offer its laptop loan program. Lenton added that the University is looking into how to best provide students with access to on-campus computer facilities through booked appointments and work was underway by the University Libraries to expand supports for students.

A question about reducing tuition fees was posed to the group from a student. Lenton highlighted that the University had made huge investments to ensure the academic integrity of online and remote course delivery. “Online course delivery is not less expensive than in-person delivery,” said Lenton, noting that the University has invested heavily in supports such as the Teaching Commons and the hiring educational developers to give faculty the support they need to provide high-quality online learning to students. Other innovations such as virtual experiential learning and enhancing ways to help students connect with each other are also being investigated said Lenton, noting that student ancillary fees have been reduced where possible.

Researchers posed questions about graduate student experiences, transparency about access to laboratories and research experiences. The vice-president research & innovation answered a series of questions about access to facilities. Asif highlighted the process is documented on the YU Better Together website. He said that transparency is key and a Research Continuity Group with representation from across the University considers all requests to ensure that health and safety standards can be addressed. The requests are forwarded to the Space Allocations Committee, which ensures that the spaces are adequately prepared, necessary safety materials like the sanitizer are available, and then informs the Research Continuity Group once the preparations are complete. Once arrangements are completed, Asif said they are communicated to the researcher.

Amir Asif

“Given the importance of ensuring that there is no lapse in health and safety, and the fact that we find ourselves in a unique situation that we have never faced previously, all universities and organizations, including us, have decided to take a very cautious approach. All research activities that can be conducted off-campus stays off-campus,” said Asif.

He noted that in the first phase of ramping-up-research, less than 466 faculty members from across the University returned to campus for research. The total number of researchers that returned to campus in the first phase during the last week of June, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and supporting technical/administrative staff, was 245. “Going forward in phase II of ramping up research, the Faculties and schools have received requests from 100 researchers for a total of 371 graduate students, post-doctoral and staff researchers asking to resume their on-campus research activities,” said Asif. “We are very hopeful that we will be able to make preparation to approve an overwhelmingly large majority and possibly all these requests. We are planning to have these researchers return to campus during the third and fourth weeks of August.”

For graduate students, Asif said the tri-councils (NSERC and SSHRC) have started contacting eligible grant holders directly to offer a supplement for each eligible grant that they hold to offset the cost associated with COVID19 research disruption.

As the town hall drew to a close, a question about the forward-looking picture for enrolment was posed to the team. Lenton answered that the fall enrolment was better than expected given that new students may be considering waiting a year to attend classes and some international students faced travel barriers due to the pandemic. The smaller enrolment base would have a negative impact on future years, and this coupled with a decline in tuition revenues would increase the University’s deficit. However, the University, due to its culture of planning, is in “far better shape over many other universities,” she said. The University, she said, is strengthening its offerings and the new Markham Centre Campus would be an important part of the post-pandemic recovery plan for York University. “We are looking two to three years ahead. Keeping an eye on the short and long term will help us emerge from this stronger than before COVID-19.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor

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