Student groups are voicing concerns about COVID-19 safety as some of the province’s biggest universities prepare to return to in-person learning.
Simon Fraser University students are planning a walkout as the school returns to in-person learning on Monday to protest what they say are insufficient safeguards.
Students are calling for an extension of remote learning, the creation of permanent hybrid learning and the provision of free N95 masks and rapid testing on all SFU campuses.
They’re also asking for the school to extend tuition and course withdrawal deadlines.
Matthew Provost, vice-president external of the Simon Fraser Student Society, said a survey of nearly 20 per cent of the school’s student body found that 45 per cent wanted remote learning, 28 per cent wanted hybrid learning and five per cent wanted remote learning with an in-person exam.
“I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves. Almost 80 per cent of the students surveyed wanted some component of remote learning,” said Provost.
“It’s important to note we’ve just been told, ‘Well. expect that your profs or the faculty will get COVID and you also may get COVID,’ leaving the onus on students to take responsibility for their safety.”
A spokesperson for Simon Fraser University said none of the school’s executives were available for an interview on Saturday.
Students at both SFU and the University of Victoria are slated to return in-person studies on Monday, after the schools postponed returning to campus due to surging COVID-19 case numbers driven by the Omicron variant.
The University of British Columbia, in contrast, has pushed the return to in-person learning for most students back to Feb. 7.
Joshua Millard, executive director of the Alliance of British Columbia Students, said concerns about returning to classrooms were not unique to Simon Fraser University.
The alliance sent a letter to B.C.’s provincial health officer and minister of advanced education on Friday on behalf of 10 student groups representing more than 112,000 students, calling on the province to adjust its official return-to-school guidelines and promote remote learning options.
B.C.’s current guidelines, issued in December, advocate for a full return to in-person learning.
“Our members were concerned the strategy didn’t account for students who were immunocompromised or students who are living with those who are at risk, regardless of what variant they are exposed to,” said Millard, arguing the guidance was out of date given the spread of the Omicron variant.
Millard said the last two years have proven that post-secondary educations have the ability to offer high-quality education via remote or hybrid models.
“We shouldn’t have students having to put their education on hold because they don’t feel comfortable in the learning hall,” he said.
“What we’re asking for is new guidance from the PHO that encourages universities to come up with new options, working with their student bodies, to make sure everyone can engage in their education experience in a way that makes them safe.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Advanced Education said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, “guided by the data, has been clear that in-person learning can be done safely right now, and in fact is important for students emotional and mental well-being.”
In a letter to the province’s post-secondary institution presidents dated Jan. 21, Henry restated her confidence in B.C.’s back-to-school guidance.
In the letter, Henry said the dominance of the Omicron variant has meant shorter incubation times and a lower risk of serious illness for fully vaccinated people, adding that B.C. has seen lower rates of infection among university students.
“Much, however, remains the same in terms of risk settings and measures to prevent spread and we continue to see lower risk in structured seated settings,” the letter states.
“Given as well the disproportionate adverse impacts of the pandemic on our young adults in the context of a highly vaccinated population, I urge you to prioritize on-campus instruction whenever possible.”
Henry writes the guidance is a balance between managing COVID-19 risk and the negative effects of remote learning, such as worsening mental health and concerns about “missing out on enriching experiences of post-secondary education.”
The SFU walkout is scheduled for 11 a.m., Monday, when students plan to rally at the Burnaby campus Convocation Mall.