Simon Fraser University. (SFU / Facebook)

‘A slap in the face’: SFU students question school’s decision to resume in-person classes

"We need a big, bold push here to make the university and provincial government understand we’re not guinea pigs here.”

By Simran Singh | January 13, 2022 |5:00 am

SFU students say they’re uncomfortable with returning to in-person classes on Jan 24, citing the current surge in COVID cases.

In a letter sent on Jan 11, 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.”

Dauvergne added the decision to resume 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.”

This comes after SFU announced on Dec 23 that temporary remote learning would be in effect between Jan 10 to 24. UBC, on the other hand, has extended its online learning period for the majority of programs until Feb 7.

SFU students took to social media to express their dismay with the decision. One of those students was outgoing SFU Student Society president Gabe Liosis who told the Beacon that the announcement felt like “a bit of a slap in the face.”

“I just think it’s way too early to be making such a drastic call. I think we should at least be waiting a couple more weeks until … we’ve hit the peak of this Omicron wave and cases and hospitalizations start to decline,” he said.

He said it’s still not clear what additional measures will be taken by the university to bolster safety as students head back to class during the fifth wave.

In an emailed response to the Beacon, Dauvergne said 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 ventilation systems, she added.

Questions around testing

As for rapid testing on campus, Liosis said he is aware that “there will be some kind of plan established eventually,” but he’s not sure what that will look like yet.

In December, provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry announced that 500,000 rapid tests would be allocated to post-secondary institutions in the province.

Dauvergne did not specify how many rapid tests SFU would be receiving, but she confirmed the school is working with public health and provincial officials on a rapid testing plan and will share information with the school community as soon as it has been finalized.

In the past, Liosis has also expressed concern around accessibility to testing on Burnaby Mountain, as the closest sites for the SFU community are located in Coquitlam and BCIT.

In October he told the Beacon it was “extremely problematic” for there to be a lack of testing centres near the university.

That was back when public health was encouraging people to get tested even if they were experiencing mild symptoms.

But due to the rise of the Omicron variant, access to testing has dramatically shifted in BC, and so has the messaging around getting tested.

Earlier this month, Henry changed her guidance on testing, stating that younger, healthier people who do get sick should assume they have COVID and self-isolate, as BC has reached “a limit” for administering PCR tests and rapid tests are in very high demand.

“Not everybody needs a test,” said Henry during a Jan 7 press conference.

“Please know that we have a limited supply and we do need to use these tests where appropriate to protect people,” she said, specifying that this includes people over the age of 55, people working or living in high-risk settings (hospitals, long-term care and remote communities), pregnant folks, and those with adverse health conditions.

“If you are fully vaccinated, at lower risk, and have mild symptoms, you don’t need a test. Omicron is spreading widely in our communities. If you have those mild symptoms, … it’s very likely that you have COVID,” she said.

BC also recently announced it would be shortening its isolation period for fully vaccinated people to five days if they no longer have symptoms. They must also wear a mask around other people for an additional five days after their isolation is over.

When asked if she felt comfortable with students or staff returning to an in-person classroom setting if they are sick with COVID and isolated for that five-day period, Dauvergne said that SFU is “confident in this advice, and many people are fully recovered from the illness caused by this (Omicron) variant within this time frame.”

Uncertainty, stress, and the mental health factor

But for fourth-year SFU student Meredith Miller the surge of Omicron and the shift in BC’s testing and isolation guidelines has made her feel uncertain about the return to in-class learning so soon.

She told the Beacon she has gone ahead and purchased her own N95 masks for an extra layer of protection, but those won’t arrive until after in-person learning resumes.

“I’m just concerned about if there’s a mass spreading event because I know a lot of people our age haven’t gotten boosters yet either, or even like invitations. I haven’t gotten an invitation yet,” she said.

Miller isn’t just trying to remain vigilant for her own health and safety.

“I have three other people living in my household. … My parents are teachers. And then my younger sibling also goes to a different high school. So it’s like, with me going to SFU it’s four different schools that we then bring home the germs from, and I feel like the chance of everyone in my household getting [COVID] is very high.”

This potential risk results in additional stress on students, said Miller, adding that she doesn’t agree with the school referencing student mental health as a reason to resume in-person learning.

“I think putting us back in that situation is detrimental to a lot of our mental health because we are putting out families at risk, putting ourselves at risk when we don’t need to,” she said.

Liosis, who has been very open about his challenges with mental health, said he understands how important it is for students to be in an in-person learning environment.

“Out of anyone, I absolutely do not want to be on Zoom again for an entire semester,” he said. “But at a certain point, you have to really balance whether mental health is more important than your physical safety. At this point, I think a lot of students genuinely would support going back online for an extended period of time, if it means that they can keep their family members safe and people around them safe.”

In her response to the Beacon, Dauvergne acknowledged that amongst the student body there is a range of opinions and preferences regarding the decision and said that, ultimately, the administration was guided in its decision making by public health experts, its own data on student impact, and the BCCDC’s data and a recent report on the impacts on mental health on young adults.

Liosis said he and his fellow student leaders are looking to take action, and they are currently working on gathering more data on specific areas of concern from students.

They are also exploring options around implementing more safety measures or even closing the Student Union Building (SUB)—a decision which he said can be made independently by the SFSS. He also noted there have even been talks around a student strike.

“So we’ll see where that goes. I would be supportive of such action. … We need a big, bold push here to make the university and provincial government understand we’re not guinea pigs here.”

Simran Singh

Managing Editor at Burnaby Beacon

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