Statement by CUPE 3903 on York University’s Plan to Return to 50 Percent In-Person Teaching in the Fall 2021 Term

On May 11th, President Rhonda Lenton issued a statement on the Fall 2021 term. In the statement, Lenton laid out York’s intention to offer up to 50 percent of courses in-person. The administration’s “optimism” in this regard is creating much anxiety amongst students and staff, and their plan raises serious questions and concerns about health and safety.

While CUPE 3903 recognizes the importance of in-person teaching, teaching on campus is not essential in the context of a global pandemic. York University is prioritizing revenue over the health and safety of students and staff by rushing a return to an unsafe learning environment without proper planning.

Questions and concerns about York’s plan remain unanswered. Despite York’s claims that several upgrades have been made to enhance ventilation in its various buildings, the university administration has not been able to answer direct questions about the effectiveness and range of these upgrades to York’s aging infrastructure. In addition, York’s plan specifies an indoor social distancing protocol of 1 meter apart, which violates current provincial Public Health guidelines of maintaining at least 2 meters of physical distance. In addition, York has made no plans to reduce class sizes. In fact, as CUPE 3903 bargains for the common good and safety by demanding a reduction in class sizes, York’s position erroneously interprets that such a demand would be in violation of Doug Ford’s Bill 124.

A number of crucial concerns around health and safety still linger:

  • How will workers–staff, teaching assistants, researchers, and faculty–be accommodated if they are unable to engage in in-person teaching activities on campus?
  • What vaccination protocols has York undertaken to ensure the safety of everyone in the York community?

As things stand today, the Delta variant is expected to be the dominant strain in Ontario, potentially spurring a fourth wave. According to the most recent study, a single shot of Pfizer-BioNTech is only 22.9-35.5% effective in protecting against this variant, and it is not yet clear whether or not a considerable amount of Ontario’s population will have their second dose (including the 2-3 weeks in takes for antibodies to have developed) by the beginning of the Fall term.

It is worth noting that York University is a commuter campus that is located near a number of neighbourhoods that continue to report some of the highest COVID-19 cases in the City of Toronto. An unsafe return to campus has the potential to harm the larger community whose members are racialized essential workers. None of these broader public health concerns have been adequately addressed by York University.

Not only was Lenton’s statement on returning to in-person teaching demonstrative of a lack of concern with health and safety, but it also conveys a complete disregard for the input of students and staff. CUPE 3903 was not consulted on this plan and, to our knowledge, neither were other labour or student unions. In fact, as per our last meeting, the administration has so far refused to organize a joint meeting with all the unions on campus.

CUPE 3903 has long been concerned with the lack of democracy at York University, evidenced most recently with the undemocratic re-appointment of Rhonda Lenton by an unaccountable corporate Board of Governors.

On June 9th, York University’s VP of Labour Relations, Dan Bradshaw, issued our union a letter indicating the employer’s decision to file a No Board Report, which could trigger a strike/lockout within the next 3 weeks. Bradshaw states that this decision was made to ensure that students, workers and staff do not “jeopardize the safe return to campus of our students, staff and faculty.” We categorically reject this false characterization. CUPE 3903 is committed to bargaining for the common good. On behalf of our communities, we will continue to fight for a sensible return to campus plan that prioritizes the health and safety of everyone in the community rather than York’s proposed plan that prioritizes the bottom line.

Workplace democracy and workplace safety go hand-in-hand. Lenton’s recent statement on reopening shows disdain for both.

We call on the University to immediately and meaningfully engage student and labour unions on this issue, and we demand a say in when and how the University re-opens.