University partners warn Minister McCann of safety concerns

In a letter sent last week, the Table des partenaires universitaires (TPU) addressed Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education, Danielle McCann, to raise serious concerns about the health and safety of the university community during the start of the 2022 winter session, in the midst of the 5th wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dear Ms. McCann, 

Dear Mr. Périgny,

We members of the Table des partenaires universitaires (TPU) appreciate and thank you for the meeting you invited us to on Wednesday, January 12. However, it is unfortunate that this meeting regarding the start of the winter 2022 term was held so late into the academic calendar and that we were not consulted ahead of time. The TPU comprises most student associations and union stakeholders in the university community representing nearly all teaching, support, technical and professional staff. We would also like to remind you that these meetings ought to be more frequent given their impact on our members’ work planning, and especially on their health and safety. 

Health and safety: A priority

We agree with you that in-person learning is far better than remote learning for most students and for the teaching staff. But the current situation calls for extreme caution. Our primary focus ought to be the health and safety of the entire university community. We would not want universities to become outbreak sites, thereby extending the fifth wave and further deteriorating the already critical situation in our healthcare system. In your introduction, you yourself, Ms. McCann, emphasized the importance of keeping our institutions safe. To achieve this, we need time to ensure all the necessary conditions are met.

It is also worth noting that the current conditions arising from Omicron are not comparable with the conditions prevalent in fall 2021 which you mentioned in your speech, and that decisions should be made with this reality in mind. There are currently no additional protective measures (e.g. rapid tests, N95 masks) in place. We believe that a return to in-person learning where most teachers, students and staff have not yet received their third vaccine dose puts the health and safety of our university communities at considerable risk. We should only return to in-person learning if all safety conditions are met and additional protective measures are in place.

Predictability and clear guidelines

Several universities have already postponed in-person courses as far as January 31, but have not dared to push them back further for lack of clear guidelines. Everyone on the TPU agrees that one week is not enough notice to resume in-person learning under suitable conditions. It’s best to err on the side of caution. 

The current uncertainty and lack of predictability and clear guidelines causes chaos and leads to additional stress and fatigue for everyone. Students need some certainty in order to plan out their term, without fearing they will have to switch back to remote learning if a premature return to campus leads to a spike in outbreaks. I am sure we all agree this would be the worst-case scenario and could greatly increase drop-out rates. Teachers also need predictability in order to prepare their courses, as constant seesawing between in-person and remote classes adds to their workload and can lead to burnout. Support, technical and professional staff members are also involved at various levels to ensure the success of each academic term, and yo-yoing affects their work. Physical health is not the only issue, as everyone’s mental health is also greatly affected. 

In these difficult times, our focus should remain on safety, caution and predictability. That is how our universities’ students, teachers and support, technical and professional staff will be able to successfully navigate the winter semester.

Signed by the members of the Table des partenaires universitaires:

Vincent Beaucher

President, Fédération de la recherche et de l’enseignement universitaire du Québec — CSQ

Renaud Béland

Coordination committee member, Fédération universitaire des syndicats étudiants

Hadrien Chénier-Marais

President, Fédération des associations étudiantes universitaires québécoises en éducation permanente

Valérie Fontaine

President, Fédération du personnel de soutien de l’enseignement supérieur — CSQ

Claude Fortin

President, Fédération du personnel professionnel des universités et de la recherche

Catherine Lanaris

Vice-President, University Sector, Fédération des professionnèles — CSN

Carole Neill

President, Conseil provincial du secteur universitaire, Canadian Union of Public Employees — FTQ

Samuel Poitras

President, Quebec Student Union

Sébastien Paquette

President, Conseil québécois des syndicats universitaires — PSAC

Jean Portugais

President, Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université

Caroline Quesnel

President, Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignantes du Québec — CSN

The TPU was formed in the mid-1990s. It brings together organizations that represent students, support, technical and professional staff, lecturers and professors. The TPU proposes a humanistic vision of the university. Its November 25, 2010 manifesto: Pour une université libre, accessible, démocratique et publique (For a free, accessible, democratic and public university) is still current.