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SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance says return to in-person classes is “irresponsible”

The group said the decision is “not only ill-advised but deeply ableist and ageist towards those members of the SFU community who have additional risk factors for COVID-19.”

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January 21, 2022 | 5:00 am

Another group of SFU students is speaking out against the school’s decision to resume in-person learning next week.

The SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (SFU DNA) released a statement to the school on Jan 17, calling the decision “not only ill-advised but deeply ableist and ageist towards those members of the SFU community who have additional risk factors for COVID-19.”

On Jan 11, SFU sent a letter to students announcing its decision to restart in–person learning on Jan 24. Dr Catherine Dauvergne, SFU’s vice-president, academic and provost, said delaying in-person classes by two weeks has given administration time to put “continuity plans in place.”

She added that resuming in-person learning “aligns with advice from public health, including evidence-based advice confirming a return to in-person learning and teaching is the single most important step we can take for overall student mental health at this time.”

Dauvergne told the Beacon in a previous statement that faculty and staff have created plans to accommodate any potential absences and layers of protection such as masks, distancing, and handwashing will remain in place. The school has also completed “extensive work” on its ventilation systems, she said.

But SFU DNA says the school’s safety measures are poorly planned and also overlook disabled and neurodivergent community members.

“SFU’s plan has inadequate safety measures, instead advising staff and students to prepare to get COVID rather than avoid it. This level of risk is irresponsible at best and eugenicist at worst. It operates on the assumption that all SFU students, staff, and faculty are young, healthy, and without any pre-existing conditions,” they wrote.

The group also emphasized the Omicron variant’s high transmissibility makes it even more dangerous for disabled folks because of the current strain on the healthcare system and the barriers both disabled and neurodivergent people are facing to access healthcare treatments.

The Beacon also previously asked Dauvergne about her thoughts around the PHO’s decision to shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated people to five days if they no longer have symptoms and if she was concerned that students and staff would be returning to campus sick after isolating.

She said she was “confident” in this guidance.

But SFU DNA said they don’t have that same confidence.

They said that, for many, the impact of COVID will last beyond missing a few days of classes. As well, they said the effects of long COVID aren’t fully understood, and for older professors, the risks associated with COVID are higher, meaning their classes could be impacted for a longer period of time.

The group also said the school’s stance on in-person classes being the best decision for “overall student mental health” doesn’t recognize the serious implications the decision will have on the mental health of disabled and neurodivergent members of the school community.

As such, SFU DNA is calling on the university to implement several policies, including immediately changing the policy of in-person teaching to provide a mix of in-person, online, and hybrid classes, and to delay the return of in-person classes until 90% of the school community has access to their booster shot and transmission rates are “at little to none.”

The full list of SFU DNA’s policy requests can be found here.

SFU DNA members Vivian Ly, Emma Hacker, and Brianna Price told the Beacon they have not received any response from administrators, “and we’re not sure we will, given how poorly they have responded to others who reached out with concerns.”

However, they said they have received positive feedback and support from peers, teaching staff, and student groups like the Simon Fraser Student Society.

Dauvergne did issue an emailed response to the Beacon regarding SFU DNA’s statement. “We recognize the anxiety and concerns that people are experiencing from the pandemic. It has been a long and difficult few years. There is a unique and irreplaceable value in in-person learning, and we have been guided in our decision to return to in-person learning by public health,” she said.

Dauvergne also said that both public health data and experts advise that in-person classroom and learning settings are “not considered close-contact environments for the layers of protection that are in place.”

There are also “options available” for students who feel they cannot participate in scheduled classes, she said.

Hacker, Ly, and Price told the Beacon that SFU DNA will continue to uplift disabled voices and many of their members have signed petitions in support of delaying in-person learning, and some will even participate in planned student walkouts.

“We will continue to work alongside other students, faculty, and staff representative groups to put pressure on SFU admin to make the rational, just, and equitable decision,” they said.

“Even if SFU chooses to put students at risk, SFU DNA will continue to promote hybrid learning and support our community, the disabled community on campus, however we can.”

Simran Singh

Managing Editor at Burnaby Beacon

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