Student unions in Montreal are spending thousands for PPE on campus

In-person classes will be resuming at the university on Thursday, after initially being delayed until Jan 20. Currently, only procedural masks are distributed to students on campus.

Concordia students asking university to replace procedural masks with N95s

In-person classes at Concordia University will be resuming on Thursday, after initially being delayed until Jan 20. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Student unions at Concordia University say they are spending thousands to purchase N95 masks for students, saying their administration is failing in its responsibility to create a safe working environment. 

In-person classes will resume at the university on Thursday, after initially being delayed until Jan 20. Currently, only procedural masks are distributed to students on campus.

"Concordia should be the ones doing the mask distribution," said Jonathan Llewellyn, the vice-president of the Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC).

"This situation could have been avoided if Concordia had taken a better path to returning instead of unilaterally deciding that we would return without very much in the way of guidelines or accommodations."

TRAC has already purchased roughly a thousand masks for its members. 

"Throwing a bunch of people in together is asking for a super spreader event," said Llewellyn, also a teaching assistant in the computer sciences department. 

The Concordia Student Union has purchased a few hundred N95 masks so far. (Hannah Jamet-Lange)

An overwhelming number of students in his class have said they don't feel comfortable returning yet, he said. Many of the undergraduate classes in his department have well over 100 students. 

A survey of teaching and research assistants by the union in January found 88 per cent are in favour of upgrading masks on campus. A large majority, 78 per cent, also said they didn't feel ready yet to return in person. 

The Concordia Student Union, which represents undergraduates, is also in a race to purchase N95 masks. Because of supply issues, they will be prioritizing them for high-risk students first, such as those who are immunocompromised. 

"The main issue is stocking. They're in stock for five minutes and then they're gone," said Hannah Jamet-Lange, the academic and advocacy co-ordinator with the union. 

The student societies that represent undergraduate and graduate students at McGill University and the union representing that school's support staff have also purchased respirator-style masks since classes resumed Jan 24.

In a statement Monday, Concordia said it intends to continue providing procedural masks on campus. 

"The very large majority of activities that take place on campuses do not require N95 respirators according to Public Health and, in educational sectors, procedure masks are being used to help mitigate transmission risks along with other preventative measures in place," said spokesperson Vannina Maestracci. 

Students and faculty want in-person classes delayed

Unions on campus have published open letters over the last month asking for a delay in reopening as well as accommodations to allow some people to continue with online learning.

"Some of our members want to return in person while others are terrified to do so," the Concordia University Faculty Union wrote in an open letter to the administration on Jan. 24. 

"That is why we ask that Concordia consider allowing faculty to exercise their judgment and academic freedom to decide what they think is best for them and their students, whether this is to continue teaching remotely, to return to in person teaching, or to use a hybrid model."

The Concordia Student Union has also been asking the university to commit to remote learning accommodations that will be accessible to everyone. 

"We hear directly from the administration that they know there's going to be a lot of absenteeism this semester," said Jamet-Lang.

"I think that really shows that they know what is going to happen. They know that classes are going to be super spreader events, and they are still dismissing it." 

Hannah Jamet-Lange is the academic and advocacy co-ordinator with the union representing undergraduates. (Sharon Yonan-Renold)

Concordia says it has granted permission for some professors to continue teaching remotely if they need to.

"Some instructors with specific medical concerns or who are part of a vulnerable population as defined by public health have been approved to teach online through a request process for accommodations," they said.

The president of the faculty union at Concordia says the union is not yet certain whether N95 or KN95 are superior to the procedural masks currently being provided on campus. 

"CUFA will be focusing on other academic issues, such as whether masks should be required of Concordia professors in classes that they teach in-person," saidd Ian Rakita, the president of the union, in a statement to the CBC. 

"Faculty members should have the right to choose rather than follow a mandate."


Miriam Lafontaine

Former CBC journalist

Miriam Lafontaine is a former journalist with CBC Montreal. Miriam worked for CBC during the year 2022. She previously worked with CBC in Fredericton, N.B.