Hundreds of students at McGill University in Montreal, Que., are currently on strike to oppose the administration’s demand that all students return to in-person classes as Canada continues to experience some of the worst COVID-19 pandemic hospitalization and death rates. Students in the faculties of social work, higher education and law voted overwhelmingly to reject the reckless return to face-to-face learning. Arts students are also voting to join the strike.
As a result of those votes, McGill was forced to offer blended learning for students wishing to remain remote. However, the administration is waging a campaign of intimidation to force students back to campus.
The student strike action is part of an emerging global opposition movement among educators and students against governments’ deadly decision to impose mass infection of the population with the highly contagious variant of Omicron. Omicron has fueled a fifth deadly wave in Canada, with the seven-day average of deaths near the highest level since the start of the pandemic.
Two organizers of the strike movement, Emma, a second-year doctoral student in the Faculty of Education, and Hannah, a third-year bachelor’s student in social work, spoke with the World Socialist Website on their action.
Hannah began by explaining that the strike was the result of more than a year of efforts to ensure safe learning by the Social Work Committee for Accessible Education, which involves students and faculty. “A student came to the social work school council with a motion demanding blended learning,” she said. “We saw the state of the classrooms, we felt anxiety, it was not conducive to a good learning environment. We also consider being in class in person an unethical decision, as it poses a threat to our clients.
Rejecting the lies promoted by Canadian governments and the media that Omicron is “gentle” and that children “don’t get sick”, Hannah said: “We have to base things on science and this idea that each individual is just as worthy of living as I am. And this honesty about death. People are dying. Children are dying from COVID. Healthy people are dying from COVID. I think every COVID death is a preventable death.
Hannah then explained how the situation has evolved at McGill in the face of the desire of the university administration to reopen the campus. “Under pressure from students and faculty, the Director of the School of Social Work (SSW) sent an email on January 4 saying that they would be doing distance learning until March Break ( February 25),” she said. “A few days later, we received an email from the SSW saying that the McGill administration had forced them to reverse this decision and that we would come back in person, undermining the hours and hours of advocacy we did to learn in full security. We had no choice but to strike. The motion was drafted, we got enough signatures, and we held a general meeting, which was one of the busiest we’ve had in a very long time. The vote passed by a huge majority. We are on strike until February 25 and we will have another vote on March 4 to decide if we continue the strike.
She also noted that the university said it would allow students at her school who want to take in-person classes to do so. However, according to an anonymous survey carried out by several professors, none of the respondents wished to do so.
The social work strike resolution states: “Our health care system is in crisis, cases number in the tens of thousands and our hospitals are running out of space. Moreover, those of U2 and U3 are on the front line during it all, serving vulnerable communities and people. Telling students that they have to come to class in poorly ventilated and poorly maintained buildings, only for McGill to send those students to work with vulnerable people on other days of the week, is a risk and a threat to the communities we serve. .
Hannah went on to explain that McGill had done nothing to ensure the protection of students and staff from the potentially deadly virus. “The School of Social Work is actually doomed because it’s unlivable, so we were moved to the arts building,” she commented. “I vividly remember a student comparing us crammed into that classroom to Aboriginal children in residential schools crammed into classrooms where tuberculosis was spreading. He touched the ventilation which had dust on it. So no, the university did nothing to provide us with a safe environment. Cutting a bunch of students who work in the CIUSSS (Integrated University Health and Social Services Centers) and hospitals in Quebec among the most vulnerable populations – the homeless, the natives – is not a good idea. The school is a super broadcast event. It’s dangerous even if we wear our masks, because we are shoulder to shoulder. There is no social distancing.”
Emma said that at the Faculty of Education, “there are hundreds of students who intern during the day and have evening classes on campus. A recent article noted that there were 48,000 children sick with COVID-19 in Quebec. McGill claims that the education building is mechanically well ventilated, we have CO2 monitors, etc., but they are very reluctant to give details on this. There is a obvious lack of transparency.But we know from McGill’s own tests that many classrooms are not adequately ventilated.
Emma went on to explain that McGill is doing everything it can to deny transmission is happening in the classroom. “It seems like they assume a classroom is the least dangerous place you can be, which I don’t think is true,” she said. “Since early January, they have actually stopped trying to completely tape the transmission in classrooms, but this has been announced very quietly on their COVID webpage.”
“It’s very emotionally draining because we’re up against McGill, which uses terms like ‘boycotting’ and ‘skipping classes,'” Hannah continued. “No one dares to use the word ‘strike’ because they are trying to reduce our collective power. We were flattered when 2 or 3 days after voting to strike, McGill released a 40-minute propaganda video about how good it is to be in person. Every person in this video was recorded on Zoom.
Students face immense pressure from the university, supported by the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) government of Premier François Legault. Despite the limited support received from the various student associations, many unions refused to support the students. Teaching unions, such as the McGill Course Readers and Instructors Union, did not support the strike, let alone mobilize their own members to fight alongside students for remote learning to stop the spread of the viruses and save lives.
But student allies in the fight for safe learning environments and workplaces are even stronger. Across the United States and Europe, high school students, teachers and other workers have staged walkouts and protests in recent weeks to oppose the policy of mass infection and death. In Manitoba, students at 90 high schools walked out of class last month to demand a safe education.
Educators and students created the Pan-Canadian Committee of Grassroots Educators (CERSC) to unify these struggles based on the fight for a global strategy to end COVID-19. Through its support of the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees, CERSC fights to unite these struggles across Canada with those of educators and youth in the United States, Europe and around the world.
When WSWS reporters explained the Zero COVID policy championed by CERSC, Hannah said she supports it “100%.” She backed the closure of all schools and non-essential production with full pay for workers and students until the pandemic is brought under control, along with a whole host of health measures and massive investment in health care. health. Emma added: “To get to COVID Zero, we will have to confront the profit-driven nature of the university.”
After journalists pointed out that the last two years have demonstrated that the fight against the pandemic is a fight against capitalism and for a socialist transformation of society led by the working class, Emma concluded: “Absolutely, no revolution without internationalism.