Dean’s messages

Archive of Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates for the U of T graduate community.

Date issued: September 17, 2020

Dear graduate student community, Welcome, and welcome back, to the School of Graduate Studies. For many of us, life as we know it has gone in a completely new direction as the world continues to deal with COVID-19. That might mean that you are reading this in another city, province, or country. You could be experiencing challenges adapting to this new reality. Or for some of you, this might be easier! Wherever this message finds you, I want to thank you for your patience, your resilience, and your understanding as we begin the year in the “new normal” that will mark the 2020-2021 academic year.

To kick off the year, I’m excited to share the new SGS GradHub—our new virtual gateway to U of T’s resources, supports, campus offerings, communities, and more through a graduate student lens. I encourage you to take some time to explore it in the coming weeks and consider the many ways you can get involved in the year ahead—from course unions, clubs, athletics, arts and culture, professional development, mentoring, volunteering, and more. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, there are countless ways—and funds—to create it.

I want to emphasize the power and necessity of social relationships through this time. You will likely develop strong connections in your home graduate unit, but remember that if you wish to expand your network, there are so many possibilities and opportunities in our 20,000+ strong graduate student community. Although our usual in-person welcome events are not taking place, the SGS Virtual Orientation Site—available to all graduate students on Quercus—contains key information, links, and videos, and it also holds information on where to go to find your communities.

Your health—which includes your mental health—is essential. Learn about the many mental health resources and supports available at the university and in the community. Write them down, bookmark them, reference them on the Student Life app, and return to them as needed. We are Canada’s largest university, but one thing that connects all of us who work, teach, supervise, mentor, and research here is how much we care and commit to your safety, health, comfort, and success. Although we are a large institution, we have proven over the past six months that we can be adaptive and agile. We understand that the impacts of this pandemic are unequal, and we have designed responses that are flexible and inclusive. When we reach out to you for your input, for example, in student surveys, we take your responses seriously and use them to make real improvements in our services and offerings.

What we offer students and how—from the design of our student mental health supports to the establishment of new bursaries and scholarships to support Black and Indigenous students, to the curriculum of our graduate student professionalization offerings—all of these are the result of what current and former students have told us about what they need to make their graduate experience as excellent as it can be. So, when you get that email or Quercus alert asking you for your input, I encourage you to participate and use your voice to improve the graduate experience for yourself, your peers, and future students.

We are living through a time of heightened awareness about the uncertainty of our collective future. We don’t know what will come for our campus or our society, but what I am seeing is a tremendous spirit of caring for one another combined with a great capacity to adapt. As Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, I am committed to co-creating the conditions for you and your colleagues to continue to thrive. You are the next generation of scholars, leaders, scientists, teachers, and professionals. You are advancing your fields and pushing our society forward to be more courageous, inclusive, and just. I encourage you to keep bringing your resilience, intelligence, and grit to all you do. The world needs your bold visions for the future.

And even when it doesn’t feel like it, you are not alone. We are together in this.

Best wishes in the year ahead,

Joshua Barker
Dean, School of Graduate Studies and
Vice-Provost, Graduate Research and Education

Date issued: May 15, 2020

Dear graduate student community,  

It’s been close to eight weeks since the School of Graduate Studies paused its campus-based activities and started to work remotely. It feels like a lifetime.  

In that time, many things have happened. Some of you have moved or travelled home. You’ve set up home offices in kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, or wherever you’re reading this. You became at-home teachers and caregivers to loved ones of all ages. You’ve turned in final papers and completed your exams. You’ve adjusted your research plans. You’ve done things you never thought you’d do, like baking sourdough, starting an at-home fitness routine, or meditating. And if you’re anything like me, you started all those things with the best of intentions but have found that making these changes has not been easy.

Remarkably, over this time, more than 140 of your graduate classmates have virtually defended their theses. Close to 4,000 of you will have completed your course requirements and are set to virtually convocate  June 2. Amalia Gil of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, won U of T’s 3 Minute Thesis competition with her compelling presentation on identifying distractions in surgery with eye-tracking. Indeed, I’ve heard countless other ways people and departments across U of T are experimenting, organizing, innovating, supporting others, and rising in these unprecedented times. 

While we celebrate these achievements, we also recognize that it hasn’t been easy to have our lives upended. The sense of uncertainty that we all feel right now has taken a significant toll. Within our community, some are at the front lines of the health emergency, either because they have lost loved ones or fallen sick themselves, or because they’re braving the risks of exposure in hospitals and other sites of essential services at a time when personal protective equipment is still not always available. It’s important that we keep these people in mind.  

Away from the front lines, some are much more profoundly affected than others. And since this is a cascading event, with the health emergency giving rise to an economic crisis and a reordering of social relations, the impacts extend well beyond the immediate risks posed by the virus. Pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities have been amplified and new dimensions of vulnerability and inequality have been layered upon them.  

To appreciate this unevenness, one need only think of the very different realities currently faced by various members of the graduate student community. Many can work from home and are eligible for government supports. Others aren’t eligible for government supports, have lost outside jobs, and find themselves experiencing significant financial hardships. And those with caregiver responsibilities or accessibility challenges may be finding it particularly challenging to work from home and advance their academic work. Letters I have received in recent weeks from both students and faculty alike have all drawn attention to the need to keep these distinctions in mind as we chart our path forward. 

Addressing these challenges in a fair and sustainable way requires creativity and flexibility on all our parts. In collaboration with our student advisory bodies, graduate councils, working groups, and others from the U of T community, we’ve been developing principles, processes, and supports to allow those most affected by COVID-19 to obtain a range of accommodations. Our approach prioritizes the health, wellness and safety of students; recognizes the diversity in the student body and in learning opportunities; seeks to minimize the financial impact of disruptions on students while facilitating their academic progress; and recognizes that the impacts of COVID-19 on students are both uneven and evolving, so won’t be fully known for some time.  

Here are some resources we have put in place to support graduate students in both the research and professional streams:

In addition to these general resources, let me describe how we have been addressing some of the particular needs of professional students, research-stream students, and students with personal circumstances that are affecting their academic progress during COVID-19 (caregiving responsibilities, illness, disability, etc.).  

Students in professional programs

Since professional students generally move through their programs as a cohort and many such cohorts move in ‘lockstep’, the impacts of COVID-19 have often required program-level responses that could be available to all students at particular points in their program. For example, in those professional programs where placements or performances simply could not take place, adjustments have been made to ensure students are still able to meet their program requirements in a timely way. Where this means extending studies beyond the program length, arrangements have been made to ensure students don’t have to pay additional tuition. (Students in those professional programs with major research components and who experience disruptions may benefit from reading the section below).

Students in research-stream programs

The experiences of our research-stream students and those professional students who are engaged in research are harder to characterize in general terms. There are many who, due to the stage of their program or the nature of their research, are continuing to make meaningful academic progress. This could be because their course work, research, or writing can readily be done remotely; or it could be because they have found ways to re-order the sequencing of their planned program of work, or to pivot it in a way that allows the disruption to be managed. For many, these adjustments will carry them through to the end of their program, which is great.

But I have heard from a good number of students who say that although they can remain productive for the time being, they are worried about what will happen if they reach a point when they have exhausted all their alternatives and can’t progress anymore. What then?    

More distressing still are reports of students who are already hitting that wall: a lab-based student who has lost years of usable data with the temporary closure of a lab’s work; a student who had recently embarked on an extended international field research project only to have it cut short, before meaningful progress could be made; a student whose research partnership with industry was abruptly halted, leaving them in the lurch. Students in these circumstances may be able to pause their work or pivot to a related project, but they will be wondering what this might mean for their time to degree, their funding, and their obligations vis-a-vis tuition and fees.

These examples illustrate why the institutional response to these challenges needs to take an individual approach. It should start with a conversation between a student and their supervisor/supervisory committee, and be ongoing, recognizing that a student who is currently able to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic may eventually be unable to progress, depending on how things evolve. (Or more optimistically: how a student who has just hit a wall in their research may find out in retrospect that it was a surmountable one!) This approach will allow the institutional response to be proportionate to the problems each student is facing.

SGS asks that a student and their supervisor/supervisory committee take a staged approach to addressing any potential research interruption.

  • First, assess and document the interruption (SGS has already distributed a COVID-19 mentoring record to assist with this, so please check it out) and take steps to transition to other academic activities where progress can be made.
  • Once this approach has reached the limits of its usefulness, consider pivoting the research by revising the research questions, the methods of data collection, or analyses, as some examples. A number of Faculties are making plans to offer new COVID-19 research pivot funding to assist with additional costs associated with this. Some may have this funding in place as soon as July.
  • Finally, should it become necessary, request registration with a tuition fee exemption. A student who was making good progress with their dissertation, but whose data collection or access to necessary sources/materials has been significantly impeded, who has completed all feasible alternative academic activities, and who ends up requiring additional time beyond the program length will have tuition fees waived (non-tuition ancillary and incidental fees will still be charged). Students may also be able to pair this support with new or existing funding available through their department or Faculty. This might include, for example, a Doctoral Completion Award, RAships/TAships/GRAships, PI stipendiary support, emergency grants, and/or new COVID-19 research completion funding that some Faculties are putting in place.

Students with personal circumstances affecting academic progress

We are keenly aware that COVID-19 has had multiple impacts on students’ personal lives. Some students are attempting to maintain academic progress while also serving on the frontlines of the healthcare system, caring for dependent family members, or managing illness or disability that may be caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. The economic disruption has created financial crises for many. In addition, the directive to stay at home has altered the conditions under which students are attempting to complete their academic work, often with negative consequences for their productivity.

These personal circumstances, like research disruption, may require interventions like transitioning, pivoting or extending time to complete degree requirements. Students should be aware that personal circumstances can be the basis for exercising options like taking a personal leave, altering the order of academic activities, or seeking extensions for coursework or completing milestone academic tasks. Students in such situations also may be eligible for COVID-19 student bursaries or grants offered by Faculties or by SGS.

Please also know that we will continue to evaluate our approaches in all these areas and to adapt them to the changing circumstances as they unfold.

Looking ahead

As talk turns to relaxing social distancing measures, and the possible resumption of some in-person research and learning activities that had been paused, we have heard concerns from students about what this will mean for them. SGS, with direct student input, and in collaboration with the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, has already started work on establishing clear principles and protocols for the return to labs, in-person and field research that prioritize student safety and consider the needs of students to progress through their programs. SGS is also collaborating with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Academic Programs, to ensure planning for courses in the Fall takes account of graduate students’ multiple roles as students, researchers, and TAs. We will do all we can to make sure these upcoming transitions are as smooth and transparent as possible for everyone, and respect student interests.

As the pandemic continues to impact your life and shape our world, I invite you to explore the SGS COVID-19 page and the links below. Please don’t hesitate to email us to let us know how you’re doing and how we can continue to support you on this journey. 

With tremendous care and support,  

Joshua Barker 
Dean, School of Graduate Studies and  
Vice-Provost, Graduate Research and Education 

Key Links and Contacts

Date issued: April 13, 2020

Dear Graduate Students & Supervisors,

We understand that research-stream graduate students and their supervisors may have concerns about how the COVID-19 epidemic is impacting graduate research and how this will in turn affect students’ academic progress through their programs. Already, most U of T labs have paused their work, research involving direct contact with participants has been paused (or methodologies changed), libraries have closed their physical locations, and research travel has been curtailed. In addition, students and faculty with caregiving responsibilities have had to adapt to school/daycare closures and other challenges. While we do not know how long this situation will last, it is prudent to be planning for the likelihood that social distancing measures and travel restrictions, in one form or another, will be part of our research landscape for some time yet.

As such, the School of Graduate Studies asks that supervisors/advisors and their research-stream Master’s and Ph.D. students plan to have an online mentoring meeting to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the student’s research plans and academic progress. Strategies to mitigate this impact, if needed, should be discussed and recorded. For doctoral students, this mentoring meeting may be part of the Annual Progress Report meeting; or it may be a special meeting. Click here for the online COVID-19 Mentoring Meeting Record Form or visit the Supervision Guidelines page for a supplemental Word version of the form to document the results of this meeting. When completed, please return it to your Graduate Coordinator, no later than May 15, 2020.  

For the graduate student and their supervisor, this mentoring meeting is not only an important check-in, but in light of this disruption, it will also help to ensure that students and supervisors have an opportunity to discuss any concerns that have emerged due to these unanticipated events. Collectively, the information gathered through this exercise will inform ongoing planning by departments, divisions and institutional leaders aimed at supporting students’ academic progress in these challenging times. To address the needs of students whose research has been seriously impacted by COVID-19, we are considering employing a range of tools, such as: program extensions, tuition waivers, research pivot bursaries, and research completion bursaries. Students in the funded cohort need to know that the commitments outlined in their annual funding letters, including research stipendiary payments, continue to remain in effect.

Since this pandemic is still unfolding, we expect the full impacts on much graduate research will only become known with time. For continuing students, we are therefore planning now for a follow-up mentoring meeting in October.

Sincerely,

Joshua Barker
Dean, School of Graduate Studies and
Vice-Provost, Graduate Research and Education

Date issued: March 17, 2020

Dear Graduate Students,

We understand that some graduate students are faced with difficult decisions regarding whether to leave University of Toronto campuses, and/or the city, and return home, given the increasing challenges with travel arrangements and advice around social distancing. While each student has a unique set of circumstances and will have to evaluate their own situation, the University is taking steps to ensure most graduate activity can continue to take place without having to be present on campus. Here is an update on where things currently stand:

Graduate Courses

As of March 16 and continuing until at least April 3, all graduate courses across U of T’s three campuses are being delivered through alternative means (which may include existing online platforms). Students are receiving details about courses and revised session dates from their graduate program directly. Please contact your program with any questions.

Departmental Examinations

Most departmental examinations (e.g. qualifying, comprehensive, and/or general examinations) can take place without physical presence. More information will follow from your graduate program regarding arrangements for the completion of departmental examinations in your program.

Placements, Internships and Other Program Requirements

Please refer to your graduate program for further information.

Final Oral Examinations for Doctoral Students

For doctoral students with scheduled final oral examinations, SGS will make accommodations to allow these examinations to proceed as scheduled without physical presence. Alternatively, we will offer the option of postponement.

Graduate Research

We understand that this is a highly stressful time for many of you and we remain committed to providing you with highly engaged academic support. The University is advising that all lab-based research operations must be shut down no later than 5 PM, Friday March 20, 2020, other than critical COVID-19 research and time-sensitive critical projects. Other research settings, including many off-campus sites, are also shutting down. Please stay informed of the status of activities in your own research setting. In many cases, plans for future research may also need to be changed and contingency plans developed. Consult with your research supervisor about your planning. Please also consult the website of the Office of Vice-President Research and Innovation which will be updated daily.

Students in International Locations

The University is monitoring developments involving COVID-19, including the Canadian government’s latest advisory that it is time to return to your home country. If you are a graduate student undertaking university activity outside of Canada and are registered with U of T Safety Abroad, you will have received a message from Safety Abroad recently. Safety Abroad has heard from many of you. If you have not yet responded, please do so.

Please note that the Government of Canada has announced that non-Canadians and non-Permanent Residents of Canada will not be able to enter Canada on flights scheduled to arrive after 12:00 p.m., March 18, 2020. Safety Abroad is supporting travel adjustments and students who have already responded to the recent message do not need to resend. Safety Abroad will reach out to you if you have completed the form for a flight. If you have booked your own flight, please send Safety Abroad a copy of your ticket and let them know when you have safely landed. You may be able to apply for emergency bursary support to assist with additional travel costs. If you are registered with U of T Safety Abroad and have not received an email, please check your @mail.utoronto.ca email inbox and respond as soon as possible.

If you are currently outside Canada on university activity and have not registered with U of T Safety Abroad, please contact safety.abroad@utoronto.ca immediately. If you are returning or have just returned to Canada, please follow public health guidance for 14-days of self-isolation.

Libraries and Graduate Spaces

Selected libraries remain open, with limited hours, limited services, social distancing measures, and with access restricted to U of T users. For up to date information, please refer to the University of Toronto Libraries COVID-19 webpage. All University buildings will be closed as of 11:59 p.m., March 17, 2020 to the general public, members of the University community will need key or fob access to enter the buildings or present University identification to campus security. We advise all students to practice social distancing in line with the advice given by Public Health authorities. Please consider carefully how this advice applies to your own circumstances and adjust your routines accordingly.

Graduate Funding and TAships

Funded graduate students, including those on stipends, will continue to receive their funding packages as stated in their funding letters. Current TA contracts may need to be adjusted to reflect the fact that undergraduate courses are no longer in-person, but the overall number of hours allocated in the contracts will not be reduced.

Emergency Funds

If you are experiencing immediate financial hardship, you can apply for an SGS emergency loan or emergency grant. We are usually able to pay out emergency loans within 24-hours and emergency grants within one week.

SGS Student Services

SGS operations continue with modifications in how we deliver our services. We are now offering virtual and phone appointments in lieu of in-person appointments. Full updates are available here.

Your Safety and Community Safety

The University’s response is guided by the need to ensure the health of our community and, as much as possible, the continuity of our graduate activities. If you feel compelled by anyone to do something that, under the circumstances, feels unsafe, please contact your graduate Chair immediately to seek resolution. You may also contact the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies directly at sgs.dean@utoronto.ca.

Accessibility

Graduate students registered with Accessibility Services should continue to contact Accessibility Services to receive accommodations and supports.

Monitoring COVID-19 Updates

We will update this SGS page regularly with important updates for U of T’s graduate community. Check the University of Toronto’s coronavirus updates and frequently asked questions pages for updates relevant to the whole U of T community, including links to travel advisories and public health guidance on self-isolation. It is also important to stay up to date with the advice provided by your department/Faculty. We know this situation brings a whole new level of stress for everyone – and some will feel this harder than others. Please know that if you are struggling, there are excellent resources you can use. The University has a list of helpful Quick Links to health resources.

Sincerely,

Joshua Barker
Dean, School of Graduate Studies and
Vice-Provost, Graduate Research and Education