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A student crossing the Faryon Bridge at Trent University's Symons campus. Photo by Rishabh Joshi.

Back to Normal? Trent says “Yes,” Whether You Like it or Not

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
January 26, 2022
Back to Normal? Trent says “Yes,” Whether You Like it or Not
A student crossing the Faryon Bridge at Trent University's Symons campus. Photo by Rishabh Joshi.

On Monday, January 24th in both email correspondence and a post to their official Instagram account, Trent University detailed procedures for the return to in-person learning the following Monday, January 31st. The announcement was immediately met with a heated response from Trent students, with many rushing to comment on both the university’s post, and similar posts from @memes_of_trentu and other Trent-adjacent Instagram pages to express their dismay and frustration with the decision.

“This is going to be a mess,” reads one comment on the university’s January 24th Instagram post. A cursory glance at the rest of the comment section reveals a similar sentiment. Out of the fifty-six comments posted at the time I wrote this, I could find only one unequivocally praising the university’s plan (from an account with no posts and 6 followers — draw your own conclusions). 

In spite of the number of long and articulate comments criticizing the university’s decision, the underlying anger and sense of distrust that 22 months of Covid measures and precarity have instilled in students still bubbles up. “They took our tuition money and literally told us to go fuck ourselves” says one comment on a post from @memes_of_trentu making fun of the university’s “[commitment] to a return to in-person learning January 31, 2022... prioritizing your health and safety and the quality of your Trent student experience.”

“Flop,” one user succinctly puts it. 

Aside from the most recent and ongoing wave of Covid-19 cases — due in part to the Omicron variant — students cite a diverse range of issues with Trent’s re-opening plan ranging from housing shortages, to a lack of proper safety measures being taken, to accessibility inequality, and international students being unable to return to Canada in time for the 31st. The overwhelming sentiment from the commenters, quote tweets and Instagram stories shows a student body angered, disheartened, and alienated by the implications of the university’s decision during a particular volatile period of Public Health response. 

Despite being in-person for the entirety of first semester (save the final few days of the exam period) it is no secret to most students that few classes were able to properly follow physical distancing guidelines. While the Provincial Conservative Government implemented legislation to exempt post-secondary schools from certain gathering size limits and physical distancing guidelines, it is understandable why some students — especially those who are immunocompromised in some way — would feel uncomfortable with that model, especially were it to resume during this relative high point in cases. Personally, one of my first-semester classes saw twenty-two students crammed into a Champlain seminar room with only twenty chairs, forcing students to sit barely six inches apart from each other, should they be able to sit at all. With Health Canada issuing new recommendations for mask usage, students are concerned about being unable to procure N95 masks in time for classes (or at all, for that matter) as well the natural risks incurred from sharing space and surfaces with hundreds of other students daily. Both PCR and Rapid Antigen Tests continue to elude most people, and with the lack of tests in general it is logistically unfeasible for most students to test regularly as they go back to an in-person campus.

This comes amidst the backdrop of a particularly tumultuous time in Trent’s home city of Peterborough/Nogojiwanong. Relative to other cities of its size, Peterborough maintains higher case counts on average, and a latent anti-vaccine movement deeply ideologically entwined with the Canadian Far-Right continues to see support in and around the city. 

On Saturday January 15th, several high-profile anti-lockdown agitators arrived at the private residence of Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Thomas Piggot, to “serve” him a manufactured Cease and Desist order under the guise of welcoming him to the neighbourhood with baked goods. Two of these agitators were later arrested under Canada’s Bill C-3, which came into effect on January 16th and prohibits harassment of health services and professionals, and “any conduct with the intent to provoke a state of fear.” Aside from an increasingly vocal anti-vaccine movement spreading disinformation and harassing Peterborough healthcare workers, Peterborough currently sees 412 active cases and 17 active breakouts per @covid19ptbo’s reporting. 

The difficulties faced by post-secondary students in Peterborough are amplified by a pronounced lack of affordable housing, an issue extensively discussed by Arthur in our ongoing coverage of Peterborough’s housing crisis. As the city continues to sprawl outwards rather than densify, and enrolment at Trent University seems to climb every year, more and more students — local, domestic, and international — are forced to compete with permanent residents of Peterborough for the few affordable properties with sufficient amenities and a manageable commute to school. 

Student housing, in theory a cyclical market under normal conditions, has become increasingly dysregulated as the pandemic drags on. Many students remain hesitant to move to a brand-new city for an education which has been largely online since March 2020. As in-person education demands students be in Peterborough to attend classes, with little-to-no leeway, many off-campus students have found themselves scrambling to find a place to stay for a period of what is now scarcely 8-10 weeks. 

Even those with access to housing through Trent University residences are not spared from bearing the difficulties of the pandemic. The Trent Forward COVID-19 Dashboard no longer tracks confirmed cases at the university (despite its URL still reading “case-tracker,” weird!), instead showing the current status of fully and partially vaccinated students and staff. There is no indication of how many cases are in any given college, despite the university requiring two Rapid Antigen Tests (one on arrival, and one after 48 hours) to access residences. An anonymous student told Arthur that Otonabee College is potentially facing several positive cases, saying “[Otonabee College Council] representatives noticed that there were some COVID cases spreading through Ottonabee [sic] that were going undetected through the provincial system.”

Many students are expressing apprehension about returning to the communal spaces that might put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, which would force them to isolate in a cramped dorm room away from friends and family. Rather than being helpful to students, the lack of disclosure surrounding cases at Trent University leaves students effectively in the dark, unable to make informed decisions and risk assessments. 

In response to the lack of communication from schools, community members have taken case reporting into their own hands. COVID-19 in Peterborough (@covid19ptbo) is a Twitter account run by Josh Kulich which has reported daily case updates and related public health measures since December 2020. 

With schools becoming unable to effectively report and keep up with contact-trace, the account has created a comprehensive Google Form for students and families to self-report COVID-19 cases, including method and date of detection, school (including Trent University and Fleming College) and which Residence building the case was associated with for Trent students. 

As of date of publication, both Fleming and Trent students have self-reported cases to @covid19ptbo’s form, detected on Jan 13 via Rapid Antigen Test and Jan 18 with a PCR, respectively. While the account’s 1700 followers is an admittedly small sample size of Peterborough’s population, it begs the question as to how many cases are going unreported at both post-secondary locations.

Students are not the only ones expressing opposition to the plans to return to in-person learning. On Monday, January 24th, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) issued a statement titled “Faculty and academic librarian voices ignored as universities rush return to in-person learning.” The statement levels criticism at universities’ determination to return to in-person learning despite ongoing cases across Ontario remain high, saying Covid-19 outbreaks are “inevitable” at post-secondary institutions if “administrations withhold information about campus health and safety and refuse to work collaboratively with faculty to make decisions about the return to in-person learning.”

OCUFA’s President, Sue Wurtele, who is also a professor of Geography at Trent, called for increased transparency from administrations, and for the return to in-person to involve consultations with “experts from campus unions.” The statement directly criticizes exemptions on gathering sizes, physical distancing and other COVID-19 measures for post-secondary education instituted by the provincial Conservative government, citing concerns from students and faculty about “[gathering] in spaces that do not meet broader provincial health guidelines.” “Faculty and academic librarians are tired of having their health and safety taken for granted and ignored,” said Wurtele.

When asked for their feelings about the return to in-person learning in a poll on Arthur’s Instagram story, students expressed similar sentiments of exasperation and abandonment. “I’m disabled and I feel like I’m worthless,” said one student. “Trent hates disabled people.” “Record ALL lectures for immunocompromised students... if you can’t support all students we aren’t ready to go back,” says another. Some students have taken it upon themselves to start a petition — which currently boasts more than 1200 signatures — calling to keep the winter semester online. Many have expressed frustrations about the lack of clear initiative from all levels of the Trent community. “What is the tcsa doing even????” asked one frustrated student. 

At time of publication, the Trent Central Student Association, whose Semi-Annual General Meeting is this coming Monday the 31st, has not issued a statement about the return to school. 

The lack of consultation from the university gives the impression of a large corporate entity flexing its authority on its necessarily complacent consumer base. We have already given Trent our money and unless they bend under the collective outrage, it seems we are offered little choice other than to comply with their demands. The exercise in mandating a return to in-person learning represents a decision made by those with far more power than any individual student, who will likely never face material repercussions for their decision to plow ahead despite the ongoing threat of viral infection. 

“I would love a student strike but who’s gonna organize it????” one student asks. Indeed, barring sufficiently large student action, the average university attendee has little political or economic power in the face of the post-secondary institution. In many ways the pandemic response from universities highlights the inherent inequality in the structure of post-secondary education. With university degrees being near-universally requisite for employment, the institutions that offer those certificates stand to profit greatly from a generation who need post-secondary degrees to sustain themselves economically. 

Trent University controls access to degrees which most people need to be hired, and thus are able to coerce students to come back to in-person classes whether the students want to or not. Having now passed the financial drop deadline, most students can’t hope to see any money back, and are afforded very few alternatives to a full return-to-campus. By refusing to record lectures or offer hybrid classes, Trent is forcing students to choose between their own health and their ability to graduate on time. It is only now that the universities’ have given their students such an overt ultimatum during a public health crisis of unprecedented scale that these divisions have become so superficially apparent. 

While this is certainly not the first time students or faculty have expressed frustrations with the University’s handling of COVID-19 response, this time feels particularly monumental. The increase in consciousness surrounding the interlacing issues the pandemic has wrought has brought with it extremely articulate and reasoned criticism of Trent’s actions, and notably the tone of students’ responses has come around from resignation and instead turned to righteous anger. 

It does not seem as though the Trent student body is on-board with the University’s decision at this point, and it will be instructive to see how the university responds. With Trent students having loudly and clearly voiced their grievances, the ball, it seems, is now in Trent’s court. 

Trent University is slated to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 31st. 

Read the OCUFA’s statement about return to in-person learning here.

Find @covid19ptbo’s Form for Self-Reporting COVID-19 Cases in Peterborough City & County Schools here.

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What’s a Rich Text element?

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Static and dynamic content editing

A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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