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‘Justice and equity’: Dozens of students walk out of SFU classrooms over COVID-19 risk

Click to play video: 'Dozens of students stage SFU walk-out' Dozens of students stage SFU walk-out
Several Simon Fraser University students walked off campus this morning over in-class learning concerns. Christa Dao reports – Jan 24, 2022

Dozens of students at Simon Fraser University walked out of their classrooms on Monday, protesting the school’s return to in-person learning in the midst of the fifth pandemic wave.

As Omicron continues to spread rapidly in B.C., they called for an extension of virtual learning, free N95 masks and rapid tests on all SFU campuses, and an extension on tuition and course withdrawal deadlines.

“Even on my way here, I walked through the AQ and saw classes packed full of students, literally having to sit right next to each other in rooms that don’t even have windows,” said Chantelle Spicer, director of engagement for the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group.

“Having to travel on transit … just knowing their are folks who are in positions of power making decisions like this, probably a lot of them still at home, while we’re here on campus, is infuriating.”

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Read more: COVID-19: SFU students plan walkout over concerns about return to in-class learning

In-person learning resumed Monday at SFU and the University of Victoria, but was delayed for most students until Feb. 7 at the University of British Columbia.

In an emailed statement, SFU Provost Catherine Dauvergne said there’s a “unique and irreplaceable value to in-person learning,” and the decision to bring students back was guided by Public Health and the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education.

“We know that there are a wide range of opinions and preferences amongst our community, but it’s particularly important to note that the majority of in-person classroom and learning settings are not considered close-contact environments for the transmission of COVID-19, based on the layers of protection that are in place, i.e., vaccination, masks, and ventilation,” she wrote.

“If a student feels that they cannot participate in classes as scheduled, they do have options available.”

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Dauvergne said academic concessions are available to all students and the university has strengthened supports for students feeling anxious due to COVID-19. Public health has not reported any transmission of the virus in “learning settings” on any SFU campus since in-person learning first resumed last September, she added.

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Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang was not available for an interview, but in a written statement, said B.C.’s provincial health officer has made it clear that in-person learning can be done safely right now, and is critical to student mental health and well-being.

“We recognize this a stressful time and different people have different comfort levels,” said Kang. “Public health and colleges and universities continue to work together closely to ensure the right measures remain in place to keep people safe on campus.”

Read more: Staffing shortages, COVID 19 lead to postponement of B.C. assessments

Matthew Provost, vice-president external of the Simon Fraser Student Society, previously told Global News that a recent survey of nearly 20 per cent of SFU’s student body found 45 per cent wanted remote learning, 28 per cent wanted hybrid learning and five per cent wanted remote learning with an in-person exam.

Altogether, close to 80 per cent of surveyed students indicated they wanted some component of remote virtual learning.

“We’re paying for this school. SFU would not be open without us,” said one student, who walked out Monday and asked not to be named due to fear of reprisal from the university.

“The professors are saying, and the school, that students want to be back in person — why weren’t we consulted? Why weren’t we asked how we want the school to be run?”

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Ciara Reid, a fifth-year sociology student, said the walkout is a matter of “justice and equity.”

“Everybody deserves the right to be able to learn in a safe environment and at this point, it’s really clear that being in person isn’t safe for everyone,” they explained.

“I don’t feel safe learning in person, I was in a lecture hall this morning with about 200 people and it didn’t feel like a safe place. There were people taking their masks off … it feels like a risk I don’t want to be taking.”

Read more: B.C. to only notify families of COVID school exposures when attendance drops

According to the Ministry of Advanced Education, B.C. university students are a highly-vaccinated population.

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In a recent letter to university students, Dr. Bonnie Henry wrote that limiting on-campus instruction was associated with “significant negative consequences” for post-secondary students, such as declining mental health outcomes.

Public health officials in B.C. have recently allocated 500,000 rapid tests to post-secondary institutions for use on asymptomatic students, faculty and staff.

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