2020 has finally come to an end. The past year introduced many challenges and sorrow, from the tragedy of Flight 752 to the Covid-19 pandemic that changed the lives of many. However, it also brought out feats of resiliency and creativity in the the University of Toronto (U of T) community.

The Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash

January 8, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash. A misalignment in Iranian air defense equipment resulted in two missiles being shot at the commercial aircraft shortly after its take-off from Tehran. This led to all 167 passengers and nine crew members aboard the flight to lose their lives.

Among the passengers were eight members of the U of T community, including University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) student and mental health advocate, Zeynab Asadi Lari. Zeynab’s brother, Mohammed, a promising student at the U of T Faculty of Medicine, was also aboard the flight.

“Zeynab and Mohammad made an amazing impact at UTM, at U of T, and in the world,” said UTM Vice-President and Principal Alexandra Gillespie in a video posted on Twitter last week.

Online vigils were held throughout the U of T community, where students, staff, and faculty came together to remember the lives lost.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and the shift to online classes 

On March 13, a week after the World Health Organization announced the global outbreak of Covid-19, U of T announced the cancellation of all in-person classes across its three campuses.

To limit further spread of the virus, all UTM buildings were closed off to students and the general public by March 18. The cancellations also resulted in many UTM students in the winter session taking online examinations for the first time.

During the summer, UTM professors participated in “Zoom by the Lake,” an online bootcamp for course design. Coordinated via UTM’s Teaching and Learning Collaboration, the bootcamp allowed professors to come together virtually and discuss the details of their courses.

Fiona Rawle, associate dean of undergraduate education at UTM, designed and led the bootcamp. “I was doing a lot of reading on online teaching, as were many of my colleagues. We all shared information and provided feedback on each other’s course plans,” said Rawle.

In October, Rawle was awarded the Minister of College and Universities’ Award of Excellence for her contributions to the pandemic response in Ontario.

Despite classes becoming virtual and student experience cut short, more than 900 international students returned to Canada for the fall semester. In residences, additional safety measures, such as making each room single, were implemented to make them safer for students. Since a 14-day quarantine is mandatory for anyone who enters the country, U of T has accommodated students by providing hotel rooms with washrooms upon arrival, along with daily check ins on health and wellness.

To prep for some students’ safe return in September, more than 800 essential workers across the three campuses have prepared the physical infrastructure for students’ safe return. More than 30,000 Covid-19 signs and decals were installed and orders were placed for 13.4 million sanitary wipes and 20,685 litres of hand sanitizer.

Moreover, students, staff, and faculty who visit campus must now complete a self-assessment check on UCheck, the university’s online self-assessment tool.

The pandemic may have distanced students physically, but it did not stop the HomeNotes, UTM’s residence choir, from continuing to make music together. Instead, it further motivated the choir to be creative and adjust to the new virtual atmosphere. “It was something that we thought would be really important to keep going,” said Brianna Legere, HomeNotes’ head chair.

With the help of a sound editing software, along with recordings of individual performances, the choir was able to sing and record songs together, such as “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

UTM’s First Virtual Convocation

In June, UTM held its first virtual convocation. The class of 2020 tuned in all over the world.

“As a U of T graduate and now alumni, we have the responsibility to contribute to social good,” stated valedictorian Habon Ali in a pre-recorded video. “As we all enter this new world, I imagine that it is peaceful, inclusive, just, and equitable.”

Towards the end of her speech, she congratulated the graduating class and remembered UTM as “a really special campus culture, one that is close-knit, compassionate, kind, and has given us all the experiences that we will never forget.”

U of T Leading National Contributions 

In 2020, several U of T faculty, alumni, and other members were awarded the Order of Canada. The order honours Canadians who make extraordinary contributions to the nation with their service, compassion, and innovations.

The latest round of appointments included former U of T Vice-President Vivek Goel, whose guidance helped the university during the pandemic, and director of Toronto General Hospital’s cardiac transplant program Professor Heather Ross.

In December, U of T President Meric Gertler addressed the community via a video message and wished all members “good health and happiness now and the year to come.”

In the short holiday message video, Gertler revisited major events of 2020. The events included the U of T community coming together in wake of the flight 752 crash in January, the initiation of conversations on eradicating anti-black racism, and the continuous hard work and research in the fight against Covid-19.

“Let’s remember how much we have accomplished in this extraordinary time, individually and collectively,” said Gertler. “Let’s continue to support each other and let’s take advantage of the holiday season to rest and recharge.”

UTM Vice-President and Principal, Alexandra Gillespie, who was appointed to her new position in July, welcomed the upcoming year through an end of year message addressed to the UTM community. “Looking back on the previous year, I remain hopeful for the future,” said Gillespie. “I have seen what our community can accomplish together, even in the most difficult of circumstances.”  

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