McGill COVID-19 guidelines warn of potential absenteeism, inability to accommodate all students

Some students at McGill University say they're concerned about new COVID-19 accommodation guidelines distributed to teaching staff, ahead of the return to in-person instruction on January 24.

University says internal document intended to support students when in-person classes resume Jan. 24

McGill University is set to resume in-person classes on Jan. 24, 2022. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Some students at McGill University say they're concerned about new COVID-19 accommodation guidelines distributed to teaching staff, ahead of the return to in-person instruction on Jan. 24.

"The Omicron variant may result in more illness among students and increased rates of absenteeism," the document, entitled "COVID-19 Academic Accommodations Framework for Students" reads. "Flexibility will be needed among teaching staff."

It urges instructors to strive for accommodations that are "compassionate, reasonable and feasible," but warns that "in some cases, reasonable accommodations will not be possible."

Rine Vieth, a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology and part-time instructor, felt "kind of in shock" after reading the document.

"I didn't realize the university was actually planning on many, many students getting sick and missing class. That's actually what we're planning for," Vieth said.

"The number of students who have reached out to me, just saying, 'I am so scared. I don't want to get sick and die... It's horrible,'" Vieth said, noting it will likely disproportionately affect students with disabilities.

Rine Vieth, a PhD candidate who teaches a class at McGill University, said some students are already saying they feel unsafe returning to class. (Dick Powis)

In a statement, a spokesperson for McGill called the memo a working document, intended to build the proper support processes for the return of in-person classes on Jan. 24 and that the health and well-being of students and staff is a top priority.

The document does offer instructors some options for accommodating students — such as flexible grading schemes and recording classes.

But it acknowledges that, in some cases, it might not be possible to find an "appropriate academic accommodation," and that it may be necessary for students to withdraw from courses, or possibly take a leave of absence. 

Vieth said the university ought to do more to help keep all students who want to learn in university.

"I've had a lot of emails from disabled students who are saying, you know, 'look, I don't want to have to potentially take another leave of absence... I don't want to risk my own health for this,'" Vieth said. 

Students expected to be in class

As well, the document says that students are expected to be present for in-person learning starting on Jan. 24. The school's website says more than 90 per cent of learning activities will be in-person.

Both undergraduate and graduate student associations say requiring students to be in-person is premature, given that Quebec hospitals are struggling to find beds and personnel to treat COVID-19 patients.

"It's just unbelievable that the university thinks that we can be back in 11 days with hospitals as full as they are," said Claire Downie, vice-president of university affairs with the Students' Society of McGill University.

"What they're saying right now is if you're enrolled in a class of 300 people, you have to be there in 11 days and you're going to be sitting next to someone wearing a subpar mask with no distancing. That's just unconscionable," she said. 

Similarly, the Post-Graduate Students' Society is speaking out the return to in-person learning when hospitals are still swamped.

"With a lack of reliable data about what we might expect over the next two weeks, it feels pretty premature to be sending people back into crowded schools at any level right now," wrote Kristi Kouchakji, secretary-general of the society, in an emailed statement.

"In the McGill context specifically, none of the plans I've seen show that any additional safety measures have been put in place, and no improvements have been made in things like automatic lecture recordings and built-in accommodations," she wrote.

With files from Steve Rukavina