The start of the fall term for college and university students in Toronto was markedly quieter this year.

With campus parties out of the equation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, frosh week, student orientations, residence move-in day and other rituals of a new academic year faced cancellation. But some post-secondary student unions are mobilizing to deliver limited services in-person while promoting a virtual campus life experience.

The abrupt end to classes at the beginning of the pandemic pushed groups such as the York Federation of Students (YFS) — the union representing 55,000 undergrads at the university — to remotely advocate on behalf of students through its academic support centre, and help to petition professors to correct grades, or issue them in the first place.

Though faculty and staff were helpful in navigating virtual learning, “A lot of professors were not pulling their weight,” said YFS president Kien Azinwi, a 2020 sociology graduate of York University. “We had to work really quickly to move our academic support online to still be able to support students because they needed us more than ever.”

The YFS is hosting York Fest Welcome Week online, featuring special guests and giveaways. It has also led orientations with online classes in Zumba and yoga, and planting workshops.

And students are engaged.

“As much as we're advocating and as much as we're ensuring that students are transitioning properly, we're still providing the fun aspect for people to just debrief and relax,” Azinwi said.

The union lobbied York to reduce tuition fees, but was unsuccessful. To help support students financially, YFS plans to create grant programs for students by tapping into the resources that would otherwise be used on physical services. Some, such as the food support centre (akin to a food bank), will still be delivered on campus but with scheduled pick-up times.

At OCAD University, the student union has also created a grant program, pitched by its director of operations Kais Padamshi, to support Black and Indigenous students experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic. One of the student union’s priorities during the pandemic was maintaining its food security initiatives, said Emily Condie, a drawing and painting major at OCAD and the student union’s communications co-ordinator.

Collage of the OCAD Student Union team. Photos by OCAD Student Union/Anusha Rajeswaran. Collage by Brent James

It has since shifted to offering delivered food boxes or electronic grocery gift cards to students, depending on where they live. Students can apply for the service weekly.

“A lot of professors were not pulling their weight,” said @YFSlocal68 President Kien Azinwi. “We had to work really quickly to move our academic support online to still be able to support students, because they needed us more than ever.”

“We've had tons of people messaging us and thanking us on our Instagram about the food boxes, and the usage of that has been very consistent,” Condie said.

The union is also facilitating educational opportunities and pays students to lead virtual art workshops. The fate of its annual graduate exhibition, which draws more than 40,000 people, is still unclear after it was cancelled in May.

OCAD Student Union Zoom workshop facilitation by David Garzon of White Ribbon. Photo by Lex Burgoyne

Closed studio space on campus means art and design students who rely on materials such as metals, plastics and printing for their projects have reduced access, though the union is hoping to work with the faculty association to create solutions.

“We're really committed to making sure that students know what is expected of their profs,” Condie said.

The College Student Alliance has submitted recommendations for digital learning standards to the provincial government, said Jason Baryluk, director of advocacy and member engagement.

“Students are in a very precarious situation and that kind of financial insecurity reverberates through to the rest of the institution,” he said.

Vjosa Isai / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer