By Kristy Koehler, April 2 2020—
Students’ Legislative Council has gone virtual, holding their weekly meetings via Zoom. On Mar. 31, SLC held its second meeting using the online platform. Largely free of technical difficulties, the meeting ran smoothly and was dominated by discussion of COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on students.
Students’ Union president Jessica Revington thought it would be pertinent to add a standing COVID-19 item at the meetings for the remainder of the 77th SLC to provide general updates on advocacy and to answer any questions.
The lengthy discussion reflected the sheer amount of unanswered questions that remain regarding many of the University of Calgary’s decisions in the wake of COVID-19. It seems that students have been actively reaching out to their faculty representatives, who brought forth those questions to SLC’s executive leadership.
Revington began by stressing that the physical shutdown of the university buildings does not impede the essential work that SLC is doing with regard to advocating for students in this new, uncertain time. She highlighted the advocacy win had by the SU in terms of the university allowing a pass/fail option in lieu of letter grades. The Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) actively lobbied for a moratorium on eviction of renters and feels that a win was achieved in that regard as well. And, while the Government of Alberta delayed the implementation of performance-based metrics until May 31, CAUS still feels it necessary to advocate for further postponement.
Vice-president academic Kevin Dang noted that the next item on the advocacy docket is to ensure that online delivery of courses goes smoothly, both with regard to student access to technology as well as the new and updated course outlines that have been provided to students.
Werklund School of Education representative Georgia East asked about tuition for the winter semester, noting that education students in their final year have had their practicums cancelled with no alternative options. She stressed that student tuition paid for this in full and it is a service students are no longer receiving.
Revington said that the university will likely take the position of denying any tuition refunds, but that the situation facing Werklund students is indeed a unique one. She was not optimistic about any refunds but said she would follow up with administration.
Veterinary Medicine representative Douglas Doyle-Baker commented that students who had summer jobs lined up, but weren’t actually employed yet are not in a position to receive aid from the federal government. None of the available emergency funding adequately addresses the situation these students are facing and noted that his faculty has been impacted heavily by the lack of assistance in this area.
Manpreet Sahota, Faculty of Science representative, asked whether or not the selection of Credit or Fail notations in lieu of grades would impact scholarships and admissions.
“What we’re advocating for, both with upper administration and specifically with each individual faculty that is in charge of an admissions process such as the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Law, is to ensure that there is transparency around how these faculties choose to look at grades that were obtained during Winter 2020,” said Revington. “We understand that these grades were obtained, regardless of whether there’s a grade or a CR there, under a set of unusual and exceptional circumstances.”
The Jason Lang Scholarship, for continuing undergraduate students, depends largely on the grades achieved in the fall semester. Revington noted that she and Dang would continue to advocate for clarity in determining how this scholarship would be evaluated going forward.
Rayane Issa, Faculty of Arts representative, brought up concerns about research opportunities, specifically the continuity of these opportunities and if they are happening, how student safety will be assured. Dang responded that the answers surrounding current and summer research are still very broad and that more information will be forthcoming.
Issa also asked about the Universal Student Rating of Instruction (USRI) surveys and, now that they’ve moved online, whether they will stay there or be moved back to paper format when in-person classes resume. She stressed that filling out these surveys is crucial right now, to see how professors responded during this crisis.
Dang noted that the SU has long been advocating for moving to an online system and that the pandemic has forced the university’s hand, however it remains to be seen whether or not it will continue virtually.
Issa wanted to know whether or not vice-president student life Alisha Gordon had seen the ‘virtual BSD’ that some students were wanting to host in the wake of BSD being officially cancelled. Gordon said she had just taken note of such a movement and would be following up.
Faculty of Kinesiology representative Mathieu Chin brought up the concern that spring and summer courses were largely full and that students wanted expanded class sizes owing to them being online.
Dang noted that this was one of the most popular questions he’d been receiving from students and that he hadn’t brought it up with administration just yet, but would be doing so very soon.
Chin also discussed how difficult COVID-19 has been on students and wondered what SU advocacy looked like going forward with regard to tuition increases.
“This is a very real situation for many students across Alberta,” said vice-president external Sadiya Nazir. As the chair of CAUS, she noted that the organization would be advocating heavily for more financial resources for students.
Vice-president operations and finance Omer Mansoor noted that the SU Hardship Fund is accepting applications for emergency assistance.
“If students are in a really dire circumstance, not only with their tuition but with rent, credit card bills or any other kind of associated living expenses, you can refer them to the hardship fund,” said Mansoor, stating that up to $1,500 is available with no GPA requirement. He also noted that the university offers a Peer Assistance Bursary, but that it comes with some strings attached regarding GPA and having to have opted-in for the $10 donation with student fees.
Faculty of Arts representative Justin Gotta expressed concern about the co-op placements that had been cancelled or delayed. He noted that the Faculty of Arts requires a four month co-op term in order to give credit, but that some placements were now either outright cancelled or down to two months.
Revington did not have a specific answer but promised to advocate and ensure that students were not academically disadvantaged through no fault of their own.
Tomiwa Oje, Faculty of Arts representative, asked what would happen to students with ongoing prescriptions at the Varsity Pharmacy now that the building and its tenants are closed. Revington stated that she’d heard that they were perhaps working on a way to continue delivering prescriptions and that she’d follow up with the SU’s Director of Retail and Leasing. Mansoor noted that pharmacies were an essential service and that the SU would follow up to see what could be done.
Haskayne School of Business representative Huzaifah Abbas brought up a concern he’d been hearing from many students, that previously graded assignments and assessments were being re-weighted. Marley Gillies, another Faculty of Arts representative, stated that she was aware of several classes where this had happened as well.
This drew harsh condemnation from Revington.
“The list of classes where this has happened is growing and growing and growing,” said Revington. “I think its really unfortunate to see that professors are choosing to re-weight previously given assignments, and midterms instead of rising to the challenge of online course delivery and finding new ways to provide their students with learning opportunities in this climate.”
She noted that assurance had been received from university administration that students would not be academically disadvantaged during this crisis and that she believed re-weighting of previously graded assessments constituted such a disadvantage. She implored students to share the information with their faculty reps, who should then share it with her and Dang so they could follow up.
“We are bringing them individually to the vice-provost teaching and learning as well as the provost to challenge their commitment to ensuring that no student is academically disadvantaged at this time, which re-weighting of previous assignments actually does,” she said.
The meeting adjourned with plenty of work on SLC’s plate with regard to following up. Much of this work hinges on the university’s prompt response to questions and ironing out of details.