By: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate
On January 24, 2022, dozens of students, staff, and faculty participated in a walkout to protest SFU’s decision to return to in-person instruction. This was the first day students were going back to campus following a temporary two-week remote learning period at the beginning of the semester.
The Peak was present at the walkout, which featured speeches, chants, and a march from W.A.C. Bennett Library to Strand Hall. They chanted “COVID greed has got to go!” and “We’re not your guinea pigs!” A speaker said, “As an SFU employee, I am going to walkout after this and not come back until it is safe.” The event was also live-streamed.
The Peak interviewed SFU Student Walkout, the organizers of the event. They wished to remain anonymous, but stated they are “a decentralized movement” consisting of SFU students and workers “from departments, faculties, and programs in support of [a] safe learning environment.”
Their demands include an extension of remote learning until it is deemed safe to return in-person, as well as permanent hybrid learning options.
The group is calling for free N95 masks and rapid testing to be made available on all campuses, alongside an extension of tuition and course withdrawal deadlines. In addition, they are demanding that SFU consult with student and labour unions.
SFU’s return to campus was met with opposition from various student groups. On January 17, SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (SFU DNA) published a statement with 13 calls to action on the decision to return to campus. On January 24, the Simon Fraser Student Society and Teaching Support Staff Union released a joint letter calling SFU’s plan “unsafe, inadequate, and inequitable.”
The walkout comes on the heels of an online petition with over 4,700 signatures in support of continuing remote learning for the Spring semester. “The decision of removing back to fully in-person teaching under such a clear rapid increasing of Omicron cases is very irresponsible for all students, faculty members, and any other university workers,” said one comment.
Another comment stated, “We just want to feel like our very valid anxieties are acknowledged and responded to! Please go remote for a few more weeks. It is so ableist to assume that Omicron is mild on everyone.”
The walkout organizers told The Peak, “SFU is the largest post-secondary institution in BC to not extend their online learning.
“They are unwilling to listen to students, have ignored multiple student surveys and responses, and furthermore have made this decision without consulting student, faculty, and labour unions.”
When asked why they chose a walkout to express their demands, the organizers said, “SFU has ignored all other ways students and staff have tried to voice their opinions [ . . . ] ignoring our walkout would show that SFU is unwilling to listen to and don’t actually care for our student body.”
The organizers wanted to emphasize “SFU’s actions and attempts to pit the mental health of students who have difficulty with online learning and the students who are anxious about the pandemic against each other are reckless.”
The Peak contacted vice-president academic and provost, Catherine Dauvergne for a statement.
“There is a unique and irreplaceable value to in-person learning,” said Dauvergne. “We recognize the anxiety and concerns that people are experiencing from the pandemic [ . . . ] We know that there are a wide range of opinions and preferences amongst our community.”
She emphasized, “The majority of in-person classroom and learning settings are not considered close-contact environments [ . . . ] Since returning to in-person activities in the fall, Public Health has not reported any transmission of COVID-19 in learning settings on an SFU campus.”
Dauvergne encourages students to reach out for available resources, such as academic concessions and the Centre for Accessible Learning. Academic concessions are granted when “unexpected situations or circumstances” impact a students’ ability to participate in their courses. Typical instructor-granted concessions include extensions, deferred exams, alternative assignments, or grade re-weighting.
The Centre for Accessible Learning provides academic accommodations for students with documented disabilities to ensure “fair access to learning opportunities as a result of factors such as learning disabilities, chronic health or mental health disabilities, and conflicts with religious holidays.” These accommodations differ from concessions and refer to SFU’s “legal duty to provide reasonable accommodations.”
“We have strengthened supports for students feeling anxiety and we encourage all students in need of support to reach out,” said Dauvergne.
The Peak previously covered the call from post-secondary unions for a safe return to campus and the students behind the petitions for an online or hybrid semester. Updates and information on SFU’s return to campus decision can be found on their website.