Aniin! She:kon! Bonjour! Welcome!
I’m C Dalrymple-Fraser (they/them), a PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the Department of Philosophy and the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto. My current research focuses on the connections between silence, resistance, and oppression in health and healthcare for trans, queer, (and) disabled communities. You can read a little more about that on my research page. For questions relating to my research, teaching, or anything else, please feel invited to contact me.
September 07, 2021: Position on a return to in-person learning at the University of Toronto for autumn 2021
September 14: The below remains current to date. Any adjustments to this statement would only serve to make it longer with additional examples of policy issues, contradictions in policy language or spirit, lack of policy enforcement and guidance, among other content pertaining to the COVID-19 situation at present. While I can provide these further notes on request to those seeking to be persuaded, this statement is long enough, and I suspect anything longer would only make us less inclined to read it.
September 07: This update adjusts my earlier August statement to centre incoming students for PHL383, and to accommodate recent changes in UofT policy. Note that policies at UofT are changing on a weekly basis, when not more frequently, and the following should be read in context of its most recent writing.
The following reflects my to-date position on this matter for the kinds of courses that I am often involved with, i.e., discursive seminars and lecture-based courses and tutorials, and may be subject to revision over time. The following is not necessarily framed in ways inclusive to practicum-and lab-based learning, where further considerations may come into play; though I would still apply my concerns on health justice, disability justice, and access equity to those cases. Readers and listeners may scroll down to the bolded text “what this means in practice” for the TL;DR on what this means for learning with me.
I am a chronically ill disabled researcher of health ethics and health justice. Because of this, and as an advocate of disability justice and racial justice, I am opposed to the University’s ongoing (in)actions to push toward in-person learning in the autumn term. The ongoing emphasis on transition in delivery despite increasing caseloads, shifting variants, no strong existing university-wide policy enforcement mechanisms around healthier in-person learning practices in enclosed spaces, inadequate changes to existing infrastructure, and the disproportionately high rates at which disabled and chronically ill people and BIPOC folks are unable to be vaccinated (or present with no autoimmunity markers despite vaccination) while at increased risk of coronavirus infection and disease, I think it is irresponsible to student health and broader population health to continue to push toward on-campus learning.
Many of my concerns reflect those that have been brought forward by both the of major teaching unions at UofT (CUPE and the UTFA) as well as other groups (eg the CFS). Many of these concerns are not student-facing in how they have been communicated, and I know the majority of correspondence students (and instructors!) have received have been those announcements tailored by the University for its membership’s consumption. There has been considerable resistance to government and University policies that students haven’t had opportunities to review. This position statement is meant to identify just a few of these issues and concerns.
To be clear, UofT and the government have been consistently revisiting and revising their policies. In just the last calendar week there have been contradictory releases about in-class masking mandates, for example, and the context is constantly changing. Meanwhile, several University webpages are out of date with the most recently communicated policies. My concerns and notes here are largely responsive and so are also subject to flux; these should be read in context.
(1) The drive to a ‘return to normal’ economically and socially has made it easy to obscure the ongoing local and global realities of the pandemic. In Ontario, we continue to see an r score above 1 over the past several weeks, as well as increasing caseloads and hospital loads, while more than a third of Ontario residents under the age of 30 (the main student-age population) have not yet received two vaccinations. Globally, vaccine inequities mean whole continents have vaccination rates less than three percent due to ‘wealthy’ countries purchasing and pre-purchasing the bulk of produced vaccines. Both globally and locally, vaccine inequities also trace along social lines of race, disability, and class, not just geopolitical borders. Public health experts have advised that we may need to see further lockdowns given that people have resumed and are resuming social practices at higher rates than presently advised.
(2) As noted, there are significant global inequities that impact students living internationally, and this includes geopolitical barriers to accessing in-person learning at a university that markets itself with pride for its international appeal and globally diverse student body. Beyond issues of cost and global differences in COVID-19 spread and vaccination, Canada does not currently recognize many of the vaccines that students internationally have had access to. Without digging into data here, my position is that to consider things “over” or “safe” in Toronto is to hold a narrow localist view that misses the realities and inequalities continuing to manifest at a global level, the complex interactions between local and global health (even ignoring social political factors), as well as those local health inequities continuing to unfold within the boundaries of what we currently call Toronto.
(3) Material changes at UofT have been minimal. Many of the changes made are not to the physical spaces to improve eg physical or social distancing, but rather are focused on modifying student and faculty behaviour with minimal means of enforcing those behaviours. It is not clear what regulations are in place to ensure that people are, as advised, completing the online health questionnaires prior to each and every visit to campus. Faculty have not been provided explicit guidance on what to do if students appear in classes refusing to abide by health standards, or what students should do if their instructors are operating outside those standards. While the university has committed to more regular air exchanges in classrooms, no evidence has been put forward of physical barriers or distancing practices in physical classrooms (many of which are already extremely inaccessible) and courses are being assigned into classrooms with only a few more seats than the enrolment cap size. Whereas the university is mandating distancing and occupancy restrictions on (eg) elevators, no such restrictions or guidance has been made on students sitting shoulder to shoulder in enclosed spaces for up to three hours at a time, including courses with enrolments exceeding 100 students. Where the university is recommending forms of contact tracing, it is not clear what guidelines are being put in place to monitor these activities (and this comes with its own issues, see eg point four below). The university has also advised instructors to pay out of pocket to purchase additional masks and PPE in the event that students forget theirs at home with no language of compensation, nor are their increases to instructor wages for the additional labour of producing (eg) hybrid courses. In general, the burden of maintaining a healthier university environment has been largely offloaded to individuals to maintain standards of health without adequate institutional support in funding or in additional labour, without explicit mechanisms of enforcement, and without adequate changes to the built environment that facilitate safer classroom environments.
(4) Additionally, where UofT is pushing toward mandatory vaccination, ignoring issues in what proof is required and how this is assured given the evidence of fake documentation being purchased or distributed over the past calendar year, I have general worries concerning: (a) students traveling from other countries will not have their vaccine status recognized and may experience barriers to attendance because Canada currently only recognizes a smaller subset of vaccine brands [putting aside the global inequalities in vaccine access, whereby less than 2% of the African continent has a double-vaccinated status as of this writing]; (b) that students who are immunocompromised, or otherwise contraindicated for a vaccine or advised on medical grounds against vaccination, will be excluded by policy or by policy application and enforcement, and particularly given that the prevalence of such conditions is higher among BIPOC groups; (c) that a mandatory vaccination policy enables and upholds potentially dangerous forms of health surveillance, particularly given limited current transparency about how data will be collected, stored, managed, and interpreted; and (d) again that this overemphasizes a neoliberal approach to healthcare and education, which shifts responsibility for health onto individuals, while deprioritizing the roles and responsibilities of the institution more broadly. While individuals’ choices are by no means meaningless nor irrelevant, the impacts of our individual choices on public health pale in comparison to the impacts of robust institutional actions and responses.
(To be clear, the above paragraph is not intended as an argument against mandatory vaccination itself. Supporting and choosing to be vaccinated is an essential part of supporting those in our communities who cannot access vaccines or for whom there is limited vaccine efficacy. Rather, these are concerns about the lack of explicit information about how such a policy will be structured and enforced, and the risks such a policy entails.)
(5) At the same time, I am aware that in-person learning is itself an access need for many who rely on certain spaces and visual indicators for learning, that not everyone has sustained technological access (especially while public libraries and similar spaces are operating at a limited capacity), that these inequities in access disproportionately track onto racial and class identities, and that several students require in-person offerings in order to obtain or continue their visa status. Furthermore, there are many people who cannot regularly work online due to (eg) traumatic brain injuries, sensory sensitivities, and other neurodivergences, disabilities, disorders, and differences. Moreover, as someone who often teaches emotionally and personally difficult subject matter, I know intimately the value of being able to collectively build a shared physical space, and the difficulties that present when we don’t have shared control over our individual learning environments. And simply: many of us just plain miss being in-person, access needs aside. And, all this is further complicated when we recognize that those with limited access to online learning are often those disproportionately at risk of more severe COVID-19 health outcomes given their social locations and thus in need of greater protections than the university seems to be offering.
(6) To be clear, I am not in principle opposed to teaching and learning in-person. In fact I sorely miss it. What I am against is the accelerated and active push toward in-person learning at a pace that exceeds the speed of adequate institutional changes and that displaces institutional responsibility onto individuals. I am against relying on the guidance of governments and institutions whose underlying profit motives seem to bias their interpretation and reliance on reporting health bodies (see for example, the various resignations from COVID-19 Tables in response to governments’ refusals to follow guidance). While it has been useful to plan for an in-person return, the past month has only very recently started to see these plans and guidance change in response to the circumstances. This, I take as a positive change, that guidance is being increasingly responsive (in the last calendar week alone, UofT has revised its stance on exemptions to instructors wearing masks while lecturing, for example). This has come quite late however, and there is much more change that needs to be done and I am sceptical that a two week window of online classes can reasonably facilitate these changes.
For my students at present, I’d note further:
The above are rather generalist concerns and only briefly express the more formal arguments that could be made. Let’s pivot now to the specific circumstance of me and us in the context of PHL383 and other courses with which I am involved.
I myself am classified an “at risk” person (we can talk about ways of interpreting “risk” in our course), and belong to care communities that include people more at-risk of COVID-19-related morbidities and mortalities than the general population, and I have personal responsibilities to my health and those of my communities. One reason for being at “risk” includes chronic health conditions which are regularly fluctuating. This mediates in-person learning in at least two ways. First, I have a right to refuse work in an unsafe environment. I have requested blueprints for our classroom and will be visiting it during an off-peak time to assess the environment there (because the room is on private SMC property its layout is not indexed in our central learning space management system). Second, if I have a flare of symptoms, I may be required by university policy not to come to campus, at least how policies are presently set out, and this would mean our ability to learn in-person may fluctuate week to week. Further, if I am exposed to a COVID-19 case, I may be required to isolate for up to two calendar weeks. These can all disrupt our in-person possibilities.
This said, if we do move to in-person learning in our courses, I will not do so without maintaining an online-only option for those that cannot or choose not to participate in in-person settings (eg, by offering at a minimum asynchronous recordings of lectures, if not ideally offering synchronous options for logging into class). You will not be deprived of a learning opportunity for protecting the safety of yourself and those around you, and I will not exclude those who are living away from Toronto. This pandemic remains firmly, for many, a matter of life and death, and I do not undervalue the importance of prioritizing health and safety over a few months of education. I also hope to make it so that this is not a mere either-or choice.
But I must also add that I generally have fair liberty in how I teach, at least insofar as I do not currently teach for my daily subsistence, though I am precariously employed / a contract worker. I pay rent out of my wages but I am able to subsist for a while absent a wage at this time. That I can raise these issues is a matter of privilege that those who need to work for survival may not be able to accommodate. Recall that the university is not financially compensating the additional labour that comes with being an instructor delivering (eg) a hybrid course versus a solely in-person course, and that the options we take up in our course won’t be available to all instructors. This is particularly true given that many course instructors are graduate students or otherwise contracted lecturers with limited job security, for whom teaching is what pays for housing and food, and who often work additional jobs, and may not have the luxury of choosing hybridization options. I do not expect the precariously employed to undertake more teaching labour without increases in pay, and I do not expect everyone to be positioned in a way to securely challenge the current policies. I encourage students to reflect charitably on those instructors and TAs who are likely doing their best without adequate institutional support, and to lobby on their behalf where appropriate.
What this all means in practice: The short answer is “I don’t know” simply because so much is changing on a week-to-week timeline. Whatever these changes may involve, I am committed to working collaboratively to balance competing access needs while remaining firmly committed to health justice and disability justice. For PHL383, then, I can offer a few key commitments at present.
(1) if we move to in-person learning settings (the earliest date would be Sept 29), this will only be done in a way that allows still for a fully-online course experience. Because the department and university listed this course as in person, we are receiving no tech support, so the online experience might just be minimally asynchronous, with mere audio recordings of lectures (call it “PHL383: The Podcast” and it doesn’t sound so bad). But I am working on plans to allow it such a move to be more immersive and synchronous depending on the options available to us (and whether the room even has a strong internet connection). In any case, any move to in-person learning will not mean you will not be deprived of a learning opportunity for protecting the safety of yourself and those around you, and we will not exclude those who are living away from Toronto.
(2) I am committed to community dialogue regarding these choices. As those of you who have learned with me before know, I value transparency and collaboration with students in course decisions. While ultimately the choice of course delivery will fall to me and depend on a number of factors needing reflection, we want student voices to have an informing role in developing any policies and practices. What is clear from even a more rudimentary health perspective is that, at a minimum, we will need to develop in-person class policies that go beyond the minimal requirements that the University has set out to date if we are to more safely transition into in-person learning, especially given the health disclosures I’ve received from several of you. I will be ensuring that we dedicate time in the first few course sessions to discuss these needs, and to keep you informed about the University’s current and changing policies.
I remain open and receptive to concerns or discussions about my current position on these issues. Whereas I hope others are open to revising their beliefs and practices in response to changing evidence and alternative views and arguments, it is only appropriate I hold myself to the same expectations and standards. If there are better ways of navigating the frictions between health justice and course accessibility (under broad interpretations of ‘accessibility’), I would be excited to hear them. Please email me for further conversation.
Winter 2021: In this new term, I will be continuing to serve as a Lead Writing Teaching Assistant through the Writing-Integrated Teaching program, as well as a Teaching Assistant for: PHL273H1S: Environmental Ethics; PHL355H1S: Philosophy of Natural Science; and PHLC10H3S: Topics in Bioethics (Reproduction and Research).
March 2021: I am grateful to have received the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Superior Teaching Award for graduate course instructors, for my bioethics course PHL382H1S: Ethics: Death & Dying. The Department of Philosophy has posted a short interview about that course on their website.
May 2021: I will be presenting (through recorded video) two talks at the Canadian Bioethics Society annual conference. The first, titled “COVID-19 and the ‘Curbcut Effect’: Disabled design and public health” discusses how disability-centric accessibility designs could have helped reduce the transmission of COVID-19, and how it is important for public health generally. The second is titled “What’s in a word? ‘Disability’ in health research and practice” and discusses how (a) the ways we talk about disability, and (b) how we use the word ‘disability’ both cause issues for the ways we research and practice disability-inclusive healthcare. Both are short talks at 10 minutes each, and recordings will be available by email request after the conference dates.
Summer 2021: This summer I will be instructing the course “PHLC14H3Y: Topics in Non-Western Philosophy” at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. That course will focus on questions of metaphilosophy and the value(s) of knowledge. I will also be teaching “PHL382H1S: Ethics: Death & Dying” at the University of Toronto at St. George in the second summer term. Prospective students are welcome to email me with any questions or concerns in advance for either course.
Autumn 2021: I will be the course instructor for “PHL383: Ethics and Mental Health” at the University of Toronto St George campus. I am currently designing a new offering of this course from the bottom up, and welcome any student questions or input. I will also be a teaching assistant in a few courses yet to be confirmed.
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