COVID-19 Academic Continuity Strategy: 2020-2021

Office of the Vice-Provost, Academic Programs (Rev. May 20, 2020)

This guide is meant to be used as a starting point or set of prompts for the University of Toronto’s academic divisions as they work through Academic Continuity planning going into the 2020/21 academic year. It is an iterative document and will change and evolve over the coming months.

Every division and unit has a unique context, which is why it is important that this document not be universally applied, but rather may serve as raw material for divisional planning, if this is helpful.  This document is a compilation of material from divisions (e.g., much of the Introduction is from the Faculty of Arts & Science) and discussion and concerns voiced during the Academic Continuity Working Group conversations.

This document provides guidance for academic divisions to develop fall course planning strategies based on the following known circumstances:

  1. The University will be operating and offering undergraduate and graduate academic programs and courses in Fall 2020.
  2. The pandemic will preclude some undergraduate and graduate students as well as some faculty, librarians, TAs, and instructors from participating in in-person academic program activities in the normal way.
  3. The situation is likely to evolve during the term, including the possibility that new outbreaks may result in the return to more restrictive public health measures.


Over the past months, faculty, instructors, TAs, and librarians have demonstrated remarkable commitment and creativity in finding ways for students to complete their Winter 2020 courses, and in launching Summer courses within the constraints imposed by physical distancing[1]. Undergraduate and graduate students have shown dedication and perseverance, learning through new delivery methods, submitting final assignments and exams, and defending dissertations using new technologies. Through it all, members of our community have been grappling with a host of uncertainties and worries brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on physical, mental, and economic wellbeing.

Much still remains uncertain. While Ontario has begun a staged approach to reopening the province, it is difficult to predict which stage we will be in when September arrives. Indeed, with the University of Toronto spread across different parts of the Greater Toronto Area, each of our three campuses may experience unique conditions, requiring distinctive responses. Local context will matter.

As we prepare for a gradual, safe return to our campuses, with as much on-campus activity as is practicable, sensible, and safe, it is in the best interests of our entire academic community to plan now for modified academic activities and course offerings in the Fall term and the 2020/21 academic year. It is likely that physical distancing measures will still be in effect and will necessitate that we modify operations. There may be limits on in-person meeting sizes, for instance, and it is unlikely that we will be able to use classrooms at their regular capacity.

There is a distinct value to in-person classes and on-campus instruction, and this should be our priority whenever possible and as conditions allow. This priority reflects U of T’s longstanding commitment to direct student-faculty interaction, a value reaffirmed in The View from 2012 and in the President’s Three Priorities. At the same, we recognize that travel restrictions and physical distancing measures may still be required in the Fall and that conditions may change during the term. In this regard, we are fortunate to be able to draw on U of T faculty members’ collective expertise in online and hybrid delivery models[2], normally used to complement in-person instruction, to ensure continued high-quality learning experiences in the present context.

In addition, there may be need to accommodate modified living and travel situations for faculty, librarians, students, and staff. These changes will require that we support faculty, librarians, students and staff as we all learn to navigate and work in a new reality. In particular, students may either experience delays arriving on campus, or may not be able to come to campus at all for the Fall term, for several reasons, including:

  • Travel restrictions and limited flight options
  • Quarantine requirements upon arrival
  • Visa processing delays
  • Difficulty securing housing 
  • Underlying health concerns
  • COVID-related personal/family circumstances
  • Challenges or concerns with public transit

Fall course planning must take the factors above into consideration and must accommodate undergraduate and graduate students who are in the Toronto region and those who are in other parts of the world.

1 This section is largely taken from the Faculty of Arts & Science strategy document

2 A hybrid course is one in which in-person teaching time is reduced, but not eliminated. At the University of Toronto, a course is considered to be hybrid if at least one third of scheduled in-person class time is replaced by online activities. Instruction may be offered via synchronous or asynchronous web‐based learning technologies, including video, discussion, collaborative tools or self-directed learning modules.

Principles that Guide Fall Course Planning Strategies

To accommodate both in-person and remote learning for the Fall term, and considering the factors noted in the introduction, we recommend that divisions consider a strategy based on the following premises and principles, in tandem with prudent financial management. The success of this effort depends on advance planning and effective coordination and collaboration within academic units; between academic units and divisions; and between divisions and the institutional administration and shared service offices, all informed and guided by public health and government authorities.

  • Health and Safety — to ensure the health and safety of our entire community by following the advice of government and public health authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Academic Freedom and Integrity — to support the pedagogical strategies of faculty members and to ensure that the academic integrity of course offerings is affirmed and protected at all times, including during strategic planning and implementation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Flexibility — to ensure capacity to respond to guidelines from government and public health authorities regarding physical distancing and in-person activities, and to developments such as new vaccines or treatments, or new outbreaks of disease.
  • Course Quality — to ensure the best possible learning experiences and outcomes for undergraduate and graduate students. This requires prioritizing the quality of the academic experience (including course management, student communications, and teaching) and appropriately resourcing course delivery.
  • Academic Progression — to ensure that undergraduate and graduate students have access to the courses required to progress in their academic program toward graduation.
  • Student Equity — to ensure that undergraduate and graduate students, whether they are attending in person or remotely due to COVID-related health or travel restrictions, are provided:
    • Equitable access to courses
    • Equitable access to high quality learning experiences
    • Equitable access to advising, guidance, and support
  • Manageable Workload — to ensure healthy and equitable conditions for instructors and staff.  There is an appreciation for asymmetric pressures on faculty, librarians and staff in personal contexts, and an awareness of differentiated comfort levels with public health guidelines and IT. Likewise there are distinct pressures that graduate students will face in pursuing their studies while also serving as TAs and course instructors.
  • Efficient Implementation — to ensure the success of this strategy, and given the magnitude and complexity of course offerings, divisions ,and units need to decide how best to streamline their approach in a manner that emphasizes logistical simplicity and strives for clear communications within academic units, between academic units and divisions, between divisions and the institutional administration, and with undergraduate and graduate students. 

Considerations for Planning

As we know, courses and programs of study involve more than just the delivery of content. They are multifaceted experiences that include interaction and negotiation of ideas, assessment, student engagement in applying knowledge and learning by doing, and transmission and sharing of information. As we plan this coming year, it will be important to be thoughtful about the pros and cons of approaching each aspect of a course and program in an in-person or remote/online format.

1. If we are going to make many Fall term courses, or course sections, accessible remotely for the whole term, announce this before enrolment.

  • This does not preclude in-person activities. Most domestic students accept their offer at the end of May.  It would be helpful to widely disseminate this information in advance of that process.
  • This will give incoming students assurance that they can participate in the first term even if COVID-related health or travel restrictions prevent them from attending in person in the Fall. 

2. Reduce complexity before Fall term begins.

  • Before registration starts, cancel courses that will likely not be offered. Increase enrolment caps on the remaining courses. This will reduce complexity and will ensure that courses have sufficient teaching support both in terms of instructors and teaching assistants. This approach will provide more instructor resources to cover sections or components of the remaining courses — e.g. hybrid, remote/online, in-person. 
  • Allow undergraduate and graduate students to register in remote/online sections for all of their courses for the full Fall term if they do not plan to, or are not able to, get to campus due to COVID-related health or travel restrictions. Do not plan on having these sections come back to in-person during the term.
  • Keep room bookings simple.
    • We will not be assigning classes to rooms and then moving them to different rooms during the term. This kind of change during a term is going to be problematic. Instead, consider the possibility of using a “web-option” approach (UTSC does this frequently). Some students are in class, while others are accessing the lecture content online. 
    • By making in-person participation optional (with a cap on the number), the number of students in the room can be reduced if necessary.
  • Try to minimize the logistical complexity of course scheduling — i.e., course schedules changing week to week.

3. Consider the year as a whole.

  • Could course offerings be planned out over two terms?
    • What should be in the Fall term and what should be moved to Winter? 
    • Identify courses that are high risk for not being deliverable with a modified component (e.g., international experiences, labs, and EL). Recommend discussions with Dean’s Office and VPAP early regarding potential ramifications and curricular alternatives.
  • Can academic readiness and orientation activities be planned in modules, and can our division be prepared to offer orientation as groups of students arrive on campus?
    • Assume that many (possibly all) undergraduate and graduate students will need to participate in orientation online.
    • Many (possibly all) will need orientation to the physical campus later in the year.
    • Develop remediation plan for undergraduate students who will be missing content from grade 12.
  • Can courses be designed to be flexible (see item 4 below for more detail)?
    • Assume some undergraduate and graduate students will be off campus for at least the first part of the term, and that physical distancing requirements may be re-imposed during the term for at least a few weeks at a time.
  • Can the academic and co-curricular experience be thought through from the student’s perspective?
    • Can you plan academic activities that don’t require added screen time? For example, having undergraduate and graduate students utilize opportunities for experiential learning in their home environment.
    • Can you involve undergraduate and graduate students in the planning process? For example, can you engage your academic unit’s student association or course union?
    • For lockstep programs: Should resources be established to support programs that are intended to operate on a cohort basis and have additional co- or extra-curricular components? For example, creating cohort-based social networking opportunities.
    • If in-person academic activities are not feasible, consider complementary opportunities for student engagement and in-person or small group interaction through co-curricular activities.
    • In addition to the above, consider online community building through activities such as peer-mentoring, professional development sessions, incoming student meet and greet sessions, or game nights. In addition to offerings developed at the department or divisional level, consider connecting students to offerings from campus-based Student Life or Student Services portfolios.
  • Can in-person activities be prioritized for high value experiences?
    • Ensure the value of the in-person experience as much as possible to give students a sense of normalcy and that key features of their experience are not being dropped.
    • Consider utilizing in-person opportunities for activities other than didactic teaching, in particular when peer-to-peer communication is important, or students are interacting with unique facilities/equipment.
    • Consider adding more in-person experience than usual to the Winter term to make up for any lost in the Fall.
  • Could courses be approached as a sum of integrated parts that come together to create a holistic experience?
    • Where possible, consider cross-divisional online course offerings to manage resources. There are courses with the same code and/or same content taught across the divisional boundaries. 
    • A course experience is more than content. The experience is local, the content is universal. Can we utilize teams of instructors to identify online material, or create resources to share, and use local sections or facilitators to create a “local online” or “local hybrid” experience with more student-instructor interaction?

4. Utilize flexible course design.

  • Can we be prepared to offer both the in-person and remote/online versions of course components when necessary — that is when there are a substantial number of students who are participating remotely, and others who are able to participate in-person, and the course is essential (core, or common pre-requisite)? Options include:
    • Moving to a flipped classroom model — students engage with the content outside of class through various media (reading, videos, etc.), and use “in-class” time to work on assignments, engage in discussions, and so on. Plan for this “in-class” time to have an in-person version if possible, and online if necessary. For example, have an online discussion forum or tutorial. 
    • Consider pro-active planning for a reduction of traditional lecture time and replacement with interactive activities that could take place in-person or remotely to ensure that students participating either way have an equitable experience (e.g., multi-part case studies, peer feedback activities, individual or group applied projects, student-led discussion groups).
    • Consider use of webinar technologies in the classroom to include remote students in assignment review, office hours, Q&A sessions, access to guest lecturers, or student presentations. Record webinar activities for later access by those in other time zones or with limited bandwidth.
  • Can courses be planned for undergraduate and graduate students to participate from multiple time zones? For online courses or course components (e.g., quizzes, office hours, synchronous discussions), can activities be designed to accommodate students in different time zones?
  • If we assume no large course gatherings will be possible, can courses be re-imagined to either remove the need for large gatherings, or put these activities into a remote/online format?
  • Can remote/online activities be planned that utilize a minimum of technological capability? Many students may not have, or cannot afford to get, a full suite of high performing tech systems — hardware, software, internet, etc. Make sure course design anticipates this variability.
  • Can existing content/resources be utilized? Reusable Digital Learning Objects and Open Educational Resources are available in many subject areas. If we were going to make our online course offerings a permanent fixture then it would make sense to build our own, but given U of T’s commitment to face-to-face student faculty interaction, extensive reliance on online delivery is likely to be time limited.  It would be much smarter to use existing DLOs (videos, activities, modules) and invest instructor time in student engagement, assessment and feedback — just as we do when we use textbooks and other course materials that are authored by other people.

5. Can assessment be designed for resiliency?

  • Could assignments or tests that require in-person activity be eliminated from the course design, in case in-person activities are difficult or impossible? Or could the weight of individual assignments or assessments be reduced (spread out over more, smaller assessment items) to reduce risk? Could a long lead time, or flexible timing, be provided on any assignment that requires in-person activity?
  • Can the technology required to participate in assessment activities be minimized to allow equitable participation by students with limited resources?
  • If students are working in teams, can the teams feature in Quercus or another platform be set up to support the teamwork? 
  • Can alternatives to paper submission be considered? And can assessment methods other than traditional tests be considered?
  • If holding an in-person test, can options be considered if in-person activities once again become untenable, or if there are a substantial number of students who cannot attend in-person?

6. Identify the need for program level disruption and devise a remediation plan.

  • If changing the delivery mode in the Fall term is going to create a situation in programs where a declaration of academic disruption will be necessary, then proactively developing a remediation plan is advised. The alternative plan should maintain and support the program level learning outcomes.
  • Consult with VPAP well in advance to determine whether an academic disruption is needed and how to develop a plan.

7. Provide instructors with guidance and information regarding divisional and institutional supports to inform planning.

  • Faculty development and activity design resources. Ensure that faculty who have confirmed their delivery format for the Fall have access to supports that are specific to that format (e.g., appropriate educational technology support, TA support, etc.)
  • Provide additional support for high impact or high enrolment courses as a priority to support high quality learning experiences for students.
  • Utilize library liaison support for curation of digital course content.
  • Consider facilitation of opportunities for planning and sharing strategies among instructors with common challenges.
    Support is available through CTSI and OLS, ranging from program level consultation to individual instructor supports. See resources at or submit requests to
  • Ensure that faculty have ongoing access to information about occupational health and safety resources and a department or divisional point of contact for questions and concerns during the planning process and into the Fall term.

8. Graduate studies considerations[3]

  • Orientation — Orientation plans for graduate students are being developed in coordination with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students.
    • Plan for remote orientation
    • Consider a series of orientation offerings at SGS and at the local level throughout the year
  • Cohort Support/Community Building
    • Shift journal clubs/lab meetings online if in-person is not advisable
    • Consider remote community building sessions for faculty and students (e.g., faculty/graduate student seminars, professional development sessions)
    • Consider online social events for students (e.g., meet and greet for incoming students, game night) to accommodate students who are not around campus
    • Develop peer-mentoring system (e.g., assign senior graduate student to each incoming graduate student with expectation of regular remote meetings)
    • Increase advertising of Student Life offerings to help engage students in community building activities and to meet students from other units
  • Teaching Assistant Training
    • Teaching Assistants will need additional training on leading tutorials/seminars/lab discussions online (connect with TATP); consider the implications for the DDAH form
    • Consider training to prepare for hybrid models (e.g., TA is present but students are engaging remotely, or vice versa; some students are engaging in small, in-person tutorials/labs while other are engaging remotely)
  • Supervision and Mentoring (see SGS Supervision Guidelines)
    • Offer webinars/guidance to advisors/supervisors over the summer to enhance abilities to mentor in remote environments 
    • Organize group supervision/mentoring (e.g., an extension of orientation activities, cohort-based or stage-of-study mentoring seminars, facilitated peer feedback and support sessions, writing groups, etc.)
  • Academic Support for Students from SGS
    • Develop new offerings in GCAC and GPS focusing on online academic communications, online research, and professional skills in online environments
  • Comprehensive/Departmental/Qualifying Examination
    • Consider enabling students to complete examinations remotely
    • Consider alternative methods of achieving learning outcomes associated with this examination
  • Final Oral Examinations
    • All Final Oral Examinations will occur remotely until further notice
  • Research for Incoming Students[4]
    • For incoming students engaged in highly affected research activities (e.g., lab work, field work) consider postponing initiation of research activities; consider alternative ways to educate students about these research activities (e.g., remote seminars, remote skills development); consider re-ordering of course work to enable research engagement at a later date. See SGS COVID-19 site for more information.
  • Research for Continuing Students[5]
    • Where appropriate, consider planning dissertation work that will not be affected by current/ongoing restrictions
    • If data collection has been impeded, consider the following: identify alternative ways to supplement existing data; postpone data collection; engage in writing components of dissertation (e.g., updating review of literature and methods sections); engage in other academically-related endeavours (e.g., participate in writing courses, professional development); if research is unlikely to be able to resume as planned for an extended period of time, consider supporting a pivot in the research project. See SGS COVID-19 site for more information.
  • Graduate Student Funding
    • Review admissions offers for funded students and identify strategies to meet funding commitments made in these offers.
    • Identify areas where available graduate student funding might be increased to help offset declines in other areas (e.g., TAships to replace RAships, RAships to replace work placements). Ensure that annual funding letters reflect any such adjustments.
    • Consider the financial needs of unfunded students and students beyond the funded cohort and how these needs might be met in the current context.
    • The Graduate Research Continuity committee is working to confirm mechanisms for ensuring that graduate students who may be located outside of Canada continue to receive appropriate payments related to their funding packages.

3 While this section is specific to graduate students, all references to students in the previous sections should be understood as relevant to both undergraduate and graduate students unless otherwise specified. For the latest guidance on final oral examinations, departmental examinations, graduate research, and graduate student funding visit the SGS COVID FAQ page.

4 The Graduate Research Continuity committee will ensure that the resumption of graduate student research is conducted in line with the University’s principles for research recovery and adaptation and related health and safety guidelines.

5 The Graduate Research Continuity committee will ensure that the resumption of graduate student research is conducted in line with the University’s principles for research recovery and adaptation and related health and safety guidelines.

Fall Term Planning and Support Strategy

Academic Continuity: Fall Term Planning
Academic Continuity: Support Strategy