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Union calls for Ontario to institute distancing, capacity limits at universities


TORONTO — A union representing workers on university campuses in Ontario called Thursday for the government to put classroom capacity limits and distancing requirements in place to better protect students and staff from COVID-19.

Ontario announced earlier this month that it wouldn't require distancing or class caps when post-secondary institutions resume in-person learning.

CUPE Ontario represents workers - including those in administrative, food service, research, and teaching assistant positions - on 17 university campuses and says the government is not doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 there.

"While Ontario's post-secondary institutions have mandatory proof-of-vaccination and masking policies, we know that these measures alone are not enough to stop the spread of COVID," said president Fred Hahn. 

"We know this because public health authorities have asked us all to do everything possible, including reducing close contacts, maintaining physical distancing, to reduce the spread."

He said he's hearing from members that classrooms are packed with sometimes hundreds of people.

"That's simply a recipe for disaster," he said.

A spokesman for Colleges and Universities Minister Jill Dunlop defended the current policies, saying that Ontario has mandated that all colleges and universities develop vaccination policies and require mandatory masking indoors. 

"Ontario’s COVID-19 safety guidelines for post-secondary institutions were developed in consultation and with the full support of the chief medical officer of health, as well as local public health units," Scott Clark said in a statement. 

"The ability of students, faculty and staff to interact in-person for instruction and on-campus activities is critical to supporting better mental health,  well-being and academic success of students."

Amy Conwell, chair of a CUPE local representing workers at the University of Toronto, said in-person instruction is the ideal, but only when it's safe.

"This September has looked a lot like a regular, pre-pandemic semester, unfortunately," she said. 

"Despite the ongoing pandemic, the prevalence of the Delta variant, and the likelihood of transmission in closed, crowded settings like our classrooms and labs on campus, U of T has few real workplace controls in place, especially at the St. George campus."

The University of Toronto said its priority was to get students back to in-person learning "as safely and as soon as possible." 

"No place is entirely risk-free but we have taken all the appropriate measures to create a safe environment as directed by the chief medical officer of health in his advice to cabinet and the Ministry of College and Universities," a spokesperson said. 

"We have listened to public health guidelines and we are following all their advice. We are also listening to our own public health experts."

Ontario reported 677 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and six more deaths.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said 148 of those cases are in fully vaccinated people, and the rest are either not fully vaccinated or their status is unknown.

There are 193 people in intensive care units due to COVID-19 – 12 are fully vaccinated, 12 are partially vaccinated, 106 are unvaccinated, and the status of another 63 people isn't known.

There are 122 new school-related cases, with 106 in students, 14 in staff, and two who weren't identified.

Elliott said more than 85 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and more than 79 per cent have both doses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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