Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance calls on SFU to rethink in-person learning

Demands include wider consultation with marginalized students and those living with frontline workers

close shot of someone’s hands typing on a laptop
Tension between remote learning and in-person classes continues as SFU returns to campus on January 24. PHOTO: Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash

By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer and Nancy La, News Editor

On January 17, 2022, SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (DNA) issued a statement calling for a delay of in-person classes in light of the changing situation due to Omicron. The statement came in response to SFU’s announcement of a full in-person return to campus on January 24 and issued 13 demands. 

Following the announcement that SFU would return to in-person classes, the DNA members “mobilized quickly” to create their statement, “knowing the urgency of the situation and that literal lives were on the line,” said Vivian Ly, DNA executive member, to The Peak.

Through Ly’s consultation with the DNA membership, many reported “feeling their mental health adversely affected by SFU’s reckless plan.” 

At the time of writing, only students living in residence and those accessing non-essential activities on campus are required to provide proof of vaccination. Students who attend classes in person are encouraged to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but there are no vaccine clinics on campus. There is also no rapid testing available on campus.

As of January 28, the provincial health office has not issued restrictions on class sizes. 

“I think a lot of people in the SFU community are feeling angry and ignored, as if SFU is avoiding acknowledging the very real problems we’re dealing with,” said SFSS accessibility coordinator Brianna Price. 

“SFU’s plan to return 100% in-person with hundreds of students in lecture halls and taking public transit to campus will cause severe outcomes and deaths,” said Ly. “A balanced approach would at least mandate hybrid classes and expanded options for online/remote learning,” 

The DNA statement is calling on SFU to “conduct its own broad consultation with the SFU community, prioritizing the voices of marginalized members and those at high risk, and acting on the consultation.”

Their demands also include delaying returning to fully in-person classes until 90% of community members have access to a third dose of the vaccine, extending course drop deadlines, and extending the tuition payment deadline. 

They are calling for immediate access to hybrid classes and financial aid to students facing barriers to accessing technology. DNA highlights the need to prioritize consultation with marginalized communities such as disabled and neurodivergent students, BIPOC students, LGBTQIA+ students, students with parents who are essential workers, international students, and “those in high-risk groups for adverse COVID-19 outcomes.” 

In the SFU Senate meeting on January 10, vice-president academic Catherine Dauvergne cited students’ mental health as one of the reasons for returning on January 24. 

A BCCDC report on young adults’ mental well-being highlighted the importance of in-person learning. In-person classes allow young adults to “gain valuable educational opportunities.” The report pointed to accessibility issues, such as having a study space for online learning, as barriers for young adults. Additional impacts on students when learning online, such as increased anxiety and isolation, were also considered in the report.

“The transition to online is honestly a very lonely one, and I am sure that many students are feeling very isolated and restless with the limited amount of people they can see and things they can do,” said an SFU student cited in the report. 

In December 2021, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a letter to post-secondary institutions encouraging a full return to in-person teaching. “Moving to online instruction can be harmful as it is not an effective means of reducing transmission, may result in increased time in higher risk settings, and be detrimental to the mental health and well-being of students,” she wrote. 

Fellow executive member of SFU DNA, Emma Hacker, noted “this return to class is not safe and does not reflect the reality of students and staff members at SFU. The planned return to campus and the anticipated spread of the virus are both going to cause tremendous harm to students, staff, and other members of the SFU community.” 

Ly added, “The World Health Organization themselves have said that the Omicron variant is not ‘mild’ even if it has less likelihood of causing severe symptoms because it is still hospitalising people, and it is still killing people.

“Overall, the reception of the statement has been extremely positive. Almost all student responses are in agreement with the measures we are calling for, and expressing hope that it will convince the SFU administration to act on reason.” 

Hacker noted the administration ignoring concerns of those with disabilities, immunocompromised people, or older populations “are deeply ableist.”

Price agreed “it’s important to specifically call it out as ableism and ageism is to force people to remember that there are SFU community members who are disabled and who are older. These members of the community are constantly forgotten and ignored — we will not let them ignore us any more.” 

Those wishing to view DNA’s statement, along with a full list of their demands, can do so at DNA’s website.