Student Media Roundtable: McGill Administration Balancing Student Safety with Academic Expectations

Graphic by Sam Shepherd, courtesy of Canva.

On Friday, January 21, Associate Provost of Teaching and Academic Programs Chris Buddle and Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau met with student media members in anticipation of the January 24 return to in-person learning and the Winter 2022 semester as a whole. Labeau reiterated the university administration’s stance that “there is no longer a need to not be in person,” and explained what measures McGill is taking to ensure campus remains a safe place for both students and staff. Throughout the session, the provosts both emphasized that McGill’s large and decentralized learning community necessitates a flexible, context-specific approach to reopening.


In his opening remarks, Buddle noted that “Tier one” activities, including labs and music assessments, have been taking place in-person since January 3. These activities, along with the re-opened Redpath Library, have already seen 6,000 to 10,000 students on McGill campus each day. Measures to return more fully to in-person learning aim at a gradual transition that will also allow considerable flexibility to individual professors and faculties. For example, McGill will allow all professors to conduct up to twenty percent of remaining course delivery online. The administration has not specified how percentages of course delivery will be measured. Nonetheless, Labeau expects this measure to “allow this transition to happen smoothly for everybody.” 


Generally, the administration’s approach to the semester remains the same as that of Fall 2021. An email sent out to the McGill community on January 20 articulated McGill’s continued goal to provide “reasonable and feasible accommodations” for contagious or vulnerable students and staff. When pressed on this terminology, Labeau clarified that “reasonable” implied that academic evaluation standards have to be maintained for every student. Students experiencing short-term illness can expect most classes to be recorded. Students requiring long-term support can still request accommodations through McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities. 


Members of the student media also expressed concern that McGill’s policies may place the individual professor’s discretion over student needs.


Labeau cited several changes to campus learning and guidelines from the Fall 2021 semester.  First, a lower density of support staff will initially be on campus than during the fall, and individuals are more responsible for performing contact tracing due to widespread use of rapid tests that McGill administration cannot track. Likewise, while the university’s case management group will continue to offer advice on isolation, Labeau placed responsibility on COVID-positive or exposed individuals to notify close contacts. Buddle added that students can expect a more blended in-person/virtual experience and a continued reduction in exam seating from the ⅓ decrease seen in the fall. Notably, both provosts maintained that procedure masks were the correct choice of mask given campus risk-levels, despite pushes from student groups, including the SSMU and the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill, for N95 distribution.


Members of the student media also expressed concern that McGill’s policies may place the individual professor’s discretion over student needs. Professors who are immunocompromised and have certain chronic conditions can request exemptions from in-person teaching requirements. However, McGill has no intention to universally mandate recording for all lecture-style courses. This means students unable or unwilling to attend in-person classes may be unable to access some material, which could potentially result in students putting their health on the line for the sake of a participation grade. Given this issue, the SSMU compiled a spreadsheet of many courses’ delivery methods, as well as their methods of evaluation (i.e. whether there is in-person participation or exams). Buddle, however, defended this policy, citing technology availability and professors’ comfort as barriers to comprehensive recording. The university, he added, would still “try to strongly encourage lecture recording.”

Because only a small portion of tests are still conducted at government testing sites, McGill has no exact count of community cases.


In response to these issues of student safety, McGill’s School of Social Work voted to strike last Monday. Students plan to stay home from in-person classes for at least a month. When asked about McGill’s response to the strike, Buddle reiterated his confidence in the safety of in-person teaching in the university environment. Instructors will continue to teach, he said, and it will be up to the students, as in any semester, to decide whether to skip class.


The Bull & Bear asked the provosts what conditions would trigger further McGill guideline changes or shutdowns. Buddle responded that universities are tasked with a “very very different management now” than last spring. Because only a small portion of tests are still conducted at government testing sites, McGill has no exact count of community cases. Even without precise numbers, trends in calls to McGill reporting potential cases remain an important factor in the administration’s outlook.


Labeau asked symptomatic students and staff with no rapid test access to consider themselves positive and stay home for five days. He expects that reopened higher education will remain a top priority for the Quebec government. There is “a sense,” he concluded, “that we all have to start living with the virus.”

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