Is SFU’s return to campus too soon?

We talked to students and faculty members to get their thoughts on SFU’s return to campus plan

A very empty hallway with windows all along the left side facing a dark night sky.
Some SFU members would prefer if the university’s halls stayed empty for a little while longer. PHOTO: Jonadan Cheun / The Peak

By: Balqees Jama, SFU Student

The SFU community is tired — call it the January Blues, pandemic burnout, compassion fatigue, or whatever you call the kind of anxiety that comes with the COVID-19 pandemic. The university’s recent announcement that SFU will be returning to full in-person learning has been met with mixed responses — relief, frustration, and most notably, extreme apprehension. 

Calls for a Remote Semester

SFU claims it’s safe to return, despite healthcare systems being strained, models predicting hospitals being overwhelmed, and experts warning of a collapse. One person who is worried about this return is Vivian Ly, an undergraduate student and executive member of the SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance. Ly commented on a public student Facebook group post and said, “Through the lack of caution, foresight, and even acknowledgement about the risks they are exposing students, staff, and faculty to, SFU is contributing directly to the current Omicron wave and strain on healthcare systems.”

Some Relief for In-Person Learning

Some students are relieved to hear in-person learning will continue this Spring 2022 semester. This is due to mental health concerns and lack of access to adequate tools for a supportive study environment with remote learning. While many empathize with the need for accessible learning, students expressed in-person learning provides a more wholesome university experience. This is something students have been forced to miss for almost two years now.

One student commented on a public Facebook thread in an SFU group, “If I have to pay this much, I expect a better quality education and/or better measures taken to protect students’ wellbeing while providing a quality education.”

Proponents for Remote and Hybrid Learning 

Students, staff, and faculty have shared the primary concern of returning right now is safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite SFU’s COVID-19 safety measures in Fall 2021, we witnessed packed classrooms of up to 400 students with little physical distance, people who do not wear masks properly, and poor air circulation in indoor spaces. “The thought of going back causes me nothing but stress,” an anonymous student said in an interview with The Peak. “I had one prof go full anti-vax mode and ask students to take off their masks ‘if they were tough enough’ and students took him up on it!” 

Many students on public platforms have expressed pandemic fatigue and frustration, but acknowledge SFU can’t safely return to in-person activities yet. Another student anonymously told The Peak, “By declaring a full return to in-person, SFU is directly telling students — no, we do not care about your well-being nor your families.”

An email sent to students on January 11 sent by SFU vice-president, academic and provost, Catherine Dauvergne, said one of the primary reasons SFU is returning to in-person learning is to alleviate mental health distress associated with remote learning. However, students like Vivian Ly are disheartened by SFU’s priorities. “What about the mental health of people who are being put at risk of getting COVID-19 (and potential mental and physical from self-isolation, long-haul COVID-19, and even death) due to SFU’s negligence?” Ly said. “Even so-called ‘mild’ COVID-19 puts a huge amount of mental duress on a person and their family.”

Additionally, many students shared common experiences of their professors refusing to provide recordings of lectures and other accessible methods of engaging online, and are frustrated the university is not mandating online options. One student said, “Many students I know in both UBC and [SFU] were forced to go to class sick for exams and labs [ . . . ]  due to the lack of resources for them when they were sick.”

Staff and Faculty Voice Concerns With Return to Campus

Students and labour unions at SFU share many similar safety concerns. In an email statement to The Peak, the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU)’s health and safety commissioner, Katie Gravestock, said, “Many TSSU members do not want to return to in-person on January 24 as they feel it is unsafe for them to do so and they are worried about putting their family members at risk, especially those who live with children under five and immunocompromised individuals.

Another issue that TSSU members have raised concerns about is the messaging this week from SFU’s president that ‘SFU is an essential service and our services must continue, even in complex times.’ 

This message and that implication are legally incorrect. It appears that the purpose of this message was to imply that workers do not have the right to refuse unsafe work, which is false. Regardless of ‘essential’ status, all workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. In response, TSSU communicated to our membership that one of their essential health and safety rights is the right to refuse unsafe work. If a worker reasonably believes that performing a job or task puts them or someone else at risk, they should stop working and report the unsafe work condition to their supervisor.”

Faculty members are also calling for greater support from SFU. A 2020 report released by the SFU faculty association and SFU academic women highlights inequities and the invisible struggles and impacts of COVID-19 on faculty, and recommended SFU prioritizes “work from home support” and “developing structural health support.”

While some faculty are eager to return to in-person learning, others are disappointed to see SFU go against the call for safer returns made in a letter released on December 22, 2021, by post-secondary unions. This letter included the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia — a union with members of SFU and other universities. 

Gravestock said, “Many TSSU members are angry, upset, and frustrated that SFU Administration is not listening to their calls to extend remote teaching and learning, and instead are putting their health and safety at risk by returning to in-person teaching and learning on [January] 24.” 

Permanent Hybrid Learning Is the Only Equitable Way Forward 

“These hybrid options have been demanded by students with [disabilities] for years before the pandemic,” said an anonymous student. “It’s a disservice to those students who have finally had some opportunity for quality education to have them taken away just because able-bodied students ‘don’t need them anymore.’” The student highlighted able-bodied people still need accessible learning options too, as they may find themselves in unpredictable situations. “Hybrid options mean not just safety, but equity.”

Despite the hardships of remote learning, SFU needs to centre the most vulnerable as BC is surging with the Omicron variant. Students and workers need to direct our frustrations and organizing efforts on the ones who have the power to change it — pressuring the SFU Administration and BC Government — and not fellow peers who have different learning needs. Education should be accessible to all students.