McGill social work students choose strike over return to in-person classes

On Monday, undergraduate students at the School of Social Work voted in favour of a strike which would mean refusing to attend in-person classes until at least Feb. 25 — a full month after the administration’s scheduled return on Jan. 24. 

Students say they could be putting the communities they work with at risk

Social work students are choosing to strike rather than follow the university’s plan and return to in-person classes. (Charles Contant/CBC)

McGill students studying to become social workers are choosing to strike rather than follow the university's plan for the return to in-person instruction. 

On Monday, undergraduate students at the School of Social Work voted in favour of a strike which would mean refusing to attend in-person classes until at least Feb. 25 — a full month after the administration's scheduled return on Jan. 24. 

Jo Roy, a third-year social worker student at McGill, is one of the students behind the effort to strike. They said that the strike is about more than just about their own risk of infection.

"Many of us, especially in the second- and third- years of our programs, do field placements twice a week in community-based settings," said Roy. "So our chief concern is the clients we work with and the possibility of spreading COVID to the communities." 

According to the Social Work Student Association of McGill University, approximately 54 percent of all undergraduate social work students voted in the general assembly. 93 percent of those students then voted in favour of the strike mandate.

Hannah Kirk-Aubut, a third-year student doing her field internship in Kahnawake, was one of them.

"I risk bringing COVID back, not just to my family — and I have a four year-old who can't be vaccinated — but also to Kahnawake." 

Jo Roy (left) and Hannah Kirk-Aubut (right) are two of the social work students who voted to go on strike. ((Courtesy Jo Roy, Hannah Kirk-Aubut))

The strike vote mandates that students strike from all School of Social Work courses held in-person until Feb. 25, but that the students could vote to further extend the strike after that date.  

Originally, the social work program had independently decided to extend its online course delivery until Feb. 25. However, students were later informed that the program was told by the university that they do not have the authority to extend online course delivery past January. 

Roy said they hope professors support the students by continuing to offer online courses. 

"We're kind of empowering them to continue along the lines of the original decision," said Roy. 

For Codey Martin, another third-year social work student at McGill, the strike follows the pillars of what they have been learning throughout their degree. 

"[We should be] advocating and being at the forefront for the disadvantaged," said Martin. "I think that this is a very serious situation where we are jeopardizing our wellbeing and safety."

CBC News reached out to McGill University Tuesday. A spokesperson acknowledged the request but has yet to respond.

Meanwhile, Kirk-Aubut is preparing for the worst in case there are no online accommodations for the students striking.

She said that students will have to figure out ways to do their assignments based on the course content they do have access to. 

"Best case scenario is that on  [Jan. 24] we all stay home, our professors open up Zoom links, and we're able to attend classes remotely, so we can still respect our strike mandate while getting the education that's important," she said.

The problem isn't unique to McGill. The Concordia Student Union, which represents undergraduate students at Concordia University, released an open letter last Friday, condemning the plan to return to in-person classes.

In the letter, it asks Concordia – who is set to resume in-person classes on Feb. 4 – to "offer a fully online or at the very least fully hybrid semester," citing health concerns in light of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

McGill's student union also sent an open letter to its administration, hoping the university reverses its plans to return to in-person learning on Jan. 24.

The pandemic has been difficult for some students who have had to overcome learning struggles and increased isolation from their peers. 

Despite this, Roy remains steadfast in remaining online at least for the time being. 

"I would actually prefer to be in person," they said. "What's driving my decision-making is my perspective of wanting to take care of the community and wanting to not be a vector for COVID for others."