study chairs with COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions

12 ways U of T is preparing for a safe return to in-person instruction

Wednesday, May 19, 2021 - 8:54am
Geoffrey Vendeville

As it prepares for the return of students, staff, faculty and librarians this fall, the University of Toronto is taking a wide range of precautions to curtail the risk of COVID-19 transmission.   

Everyone coming to campus will be required to take a self-reported health screening. Building ventilation systems are being inspected, air filters have been upgraded where necessary and air purifiers are being added to classrooms as needed. Room occupancy will be limited, as is the case with other enclosed spaces, from grocery stores to buses.   

“We’re exploring every possible avenue to prepare our campuses for a successful fall term that includes in-person learning, activities and other experiences,” said Ron Saporta, chief operating officer, property services and sustainability. “As the situation evolves, we will continue to monitor public health guidance daily to ensure that our measures are up to date and are informed by evidence.”  

Here are 12 ways U of T is planning for a safe return of in-person instruction this fall:   


1. UCheck health screening  

Before visiting campus, everyone – students, faculty, staff, librarians, researchers and even contractors – must complete a health screening. The easiest way to do this is by using the university’s online self-assessment tool, UCheck. A paper-based process is also available.  

The UCheck questionnaire has been updated to reflect the latest public health guidance, takes just a few minutes to complete and can be accessed via smartphone, tablet or desktop. Submitted data is encrypted in transit and storage to protect users’ privacy.   

2. Physical distancing measures  

Rows of empty chairs in lecture hall
(Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

To help facilitate physical distancing, the university has taken steps to re-orient traffic flow in buildings by posting signage and rearranging furniture and other features to help people maintain a distance of at least two metres from one another. In some cases, chairs have been taped off and desks and other furniture have been physically separated – or removed altogether.  

“Physical distancing remains an important practice to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Saporta said.   

3. Scheduling changes and capacity limits  

People physically distanced outside building doing yoga
(Photo by Johnny Guatto)

U of T has also capped the number of people allowed inside rooms to help facilitate physical distancing. Some departments have adjusted schedules so that fewer people occupy the same indoor space at the same time.

Efforts will also be made to move activities such as fitness classes outdoors while weather and public health guidelines permit – a strategy that was successfully implemented last fall.  

“In keeping with the latest public health guidance, we have further limited occupancy since last spring.  We will continue to monitor the guidance in this area over the summer and make adjustments as needed,” said Saporta.    

4. Non-medical face masks   

The university’s policy requiring non-medical masks to be worn in all indoor spaces will remain in effect. U of T’s mask policy and allowable exclusions, as well as answers to frequently asked questions about masks, can all be found on the UTogether site.  

Health Canada now recommends wearing a well-fitted masks with “at least 2 layers of tightly woven fabric, such as cotton,” plus a third middle layer of filter-type fabric, such as non-woven polypropylene.  

5. Enhanced cleaning and more sanitizing stations  

Hand sanitizer on wall beside classroom door
(Photo by David Lee)

The university has installed thousands of touchless hand sanitizing stations and sanitizing wipe dispensers across the three campuses. U of T has also ramped up cleaning of common-use areas such as classrooms, libraries, washrooms and lobbies.   

Staff frequently wipe down and disinfect high-touch surfaces like door handles, handrails and elevator buttons.  

6. Industry-leading classroom ventilation targets  

Air filter system mounted to a wall. Digital read out says Clean. 99%
(Photo by Johnny Guatto)

Classrooms that will be used for in-person teaching across the three campuses will be equipped for six equivalent air changes per hour, the same standard applied to patient examination rooms, walk-in clinics and other health-care settings.   

U of T consulted outside experts in adopting its ventilation standard.   

“In the context of the pandemic, we’ve been on top of recommended COVID-19 ventilation safety measures,” said Jelena Vulovic-Basic, a senior manager, operations and maintenance at U of T Facilities & Services.   

7. Upgrading building ventilation and air filtration  

Man in utility room wearing face mask carrying a furnace filter
(Photo by Johnny Guatto)

The university continues to upgrade and monitor heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment where necessary. That includes monitoring and maintaining upgraded air filters that capture a greater percentage of smaller particles and outfitting some classrooms with a local air filtration device with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.  

All building ventilation systems at U of T will continue to undergo regular maintenance to ensure air is clean and flowing into and out of buildings properly.   

As an additional measure, the university plans to flush air from enclosed spaces prior to occupancy.   

“We turn on the ventilation system two hours before anyone walks through the door, filling the building with clean air,” Saporta said.   

8. Contact tracing through QR codes

As part of a voluntary pilot project, people entering some buildings will see posters encouraging them to use UCheck to scan a QR code located at the entrances. The scans will help with contact tracing in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19.   

“If we have an issue, Occupational Health Services can notify people directly about a potential exposure,” said Cathy Eberts, U of T’s director, enterprise applications and deputy chief information officer.   

“It’s all through UCheck, so your information is encrypted and only accessible by our occupational health nurse if we need to do contract tracing.”   

9. Monitoring wastewater in large residences   

A pilot project is underway at U of T to monitor sewage for the virus that causes COVID-19.   

Some municipalities, including Ottawa, have been using this method to detect the virus – often before those who are infected realize they are sick.   

At U of T, the plan is to monitor wastewater from residences that house about 100 people or more.   

“The approach here – which was successfully tested during a pilot earlier this year – is we monitor building wastewater for pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, and if we find it then we implement our outbreak prevention protocol,” Saporta said.   

10. Rapid screening for some essential staff  

The university is also piloting rapid antigen testing for U of T staff whose role requires frequent face-to-face interaction with the public, such as those working in dentistry and health and wellness.   

The screening program was developed by the Creative Destruction Lab – a business accelerator affiliated with the Rotman School of Management – and has been used by the likes of Air Canada and Scotiabank.   

The BD Veritor System uses nasal swabs to detect SARS-CoV-2.   

The test, which returns a result in as little as 15 minutes, can accurately identify the presence of the coronavirus roughly 85 per cent of the time and can accurately eliminate those who are not infected nearly 100 per cent of the time. Those who test positive will be referred for further testing.   

11. Department-specific COVID-19 guidelines and tools  

Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, U of T is asking each department to adapt the university’s – and indeed broader public health guidelines – to its own specific circumstances.   

“It’s important to contextualize general guidelines to the space where you work,” said Gina Trubiani, U of T’s director, occupational health and safety.   

“How physical distancing works in caretaking may be different from how it works in a place like the Medical Sciences Building. This allows for a nimbler, more flexible response so departments can apply the general guidelines based on their circumstances.”   

12. Supporting Ontario’s vaccination drive  

Overhead view of vaccine clinic at UTM, with people sitting in chairs physically distanced and others getting a vaccine
(Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

U of T is supplying space and volunteers to boost the province’s vaccination efforts. Earlier this month, a vaccine clinic hosted by U of T Mississauga and run by Trillium Health Partners and Peel Public Health celebrated an important milestone: 100,000 shots in arms.   

Another clinic, on the St. George campus, is operated by the University Health Network with participation from Sinai Health and U of T. And there are plans to host a third clinic at U of T Scarborough.  

In all cases, the vaccinations are administered at the U of T-hosted sites following the province’s vaccine priority schedule and ethical guidelines.  

“Our main goal is to do what we can to partner with our hospitals and public health to serve our communities,” Salvatore Spadafora, a physician and professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine who is special adviser to the president and provost on COVID-19, told U of T News.    

He later said he hoped Canada’s mass immunization effort will also help the U of T community “arrive at a better, safer and less isolated place this fall.”  

As for the entire 12-step plan, Spadafora said, it will evolve with the science and the public health regulations of the day – and as case counts fall and vaccinations increase.

“The university will continue to monitor the effectiveness of these programs, as well as scientific evidence and best practices and will adapt this program as warranted.”

For the latest updates visit UTogether