As universities across Ontario begin planning for reopening in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and safety of workers and students appears to be taking a back seat to other considerations, the Chair of CUPE Ontario’s University Workers’ Coordinating Committee (OUWCC) warned Thursday.

“Over and over again, we are seeing the same thing across the province—Universities refusing to even meet with, much less meaningfully engage with their Joint Heath and Safety Committees (JHSCs) ahead of reopening,” said OUWCC Chair David Simao. The OUWCC speaks on behalf of more than 30,000 university workers represented by CUPE in Ontario.

“In normal times, failing to consult your JHSC is highly problematic. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he added.

Post-secondary institutions across Ontario shut down in March, following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic. While some online instruction has taken place, there has been a major push by the province and universities to resume on-site learning in September.

Simao said that in the rush to reopen for September, safety of workers and students isn’t being given the consideration it requires.

“Any plan to reopen universities for in-person learning and research must have the health and safety of students and workers as its very first consideration. This does not appear to be the case at this time. The Ford Government’s guidelines to the sector have been haphazard at best, the number of JHSCs consulted by universities have been miniscule, and the disregard for student and worker health and safety by some universities has been nothing short of shocking,” he said.

In the absence of clear guidance from the Province, Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario, urged Ontario’s universities to put the health and safety of staff and students at the forefront of any reopening plan.

“Safe working conditions for university workers are safe learning conditions for students. The most effective path to safely reopening our universities is for administrations to meaningfully engage with their workers through the mechanisms that have always been available to promote health and safety—especially JHSCs,” he said.