British Columbia

B.C. university students 'torn' about return to in-person classes amidst Omicron wave

Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria say they're following public health guidance as they plan to return to classes on Monday. Many students and faculty aren't so sure it's safe.

10 student associations demand stricter health guidelines, option for online learning in letter to province

Simon Fraser University's Burnaby campus pictured on Jan. 21, 2022. The university will return to in-person learning next week, prompting worries for many students. (CBC News)

Two B.C. universities' planned return to in-person classes on Monday has prompted COVID-19 worries for many students.

Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria will return to in-person learning next week.

Now, in a letter to the province opposing the in-class learning recommendations — signed by 10 student associations representing more than 100,000 students in B.C. — the students are demanding stricter health guidelines and an option for online-learning.

"I'm really concerned and worried about going into lectures with an airborne virus and lots of people potentially contracting the virus themselves or bringing it home to their families and loved ones," Joshua Millard, executive director of the Alliance of B.C. Students, told CBC News. 

The alliance's letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Anne Kang, B.C.'s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training, has gained widespread support from other students across the province.

The letter urges the province to reverse post-secondary recommendations for in-class learning they say "will result in an unsafe environment for students and staff."

Both SFU and UVic say they've carefully studied COVID's transmission in other post-secondary schools, and all students and faculty must wear masks at all times indoors.

The decision to resume classes on campus has been guided by health authorities' advice, according to a UVic spokesperson in a statement. 

The school's COVID protocols are "evidence-based, student-focused and centred on the safety and well being of our entire campus community," the statement read.

SFU provost Catherine Dauvergne told CBC News the school is following all guidance from public health authorities.

"Omicron transmission is occurring in social settings where people spend prolonged periods of time," she said. "It's just not in the lecture hall setting where we see it."

For Millard, the public health advice itself needs to be stricter and take a precautionary approach to the Omicron variant's risks, as different universities adopt varying policies on in-class learning. 

"We need that guidance to be changed, to acknowledge these circumstances — and put some pressure on institutions to come up with a plan that makes sure all the students are safe," he said. 

"That could include providing options for some students where being in a class is not safe for them, and they don't want to have their degree affected."

For SFU student Emma Hacker, it's a "small, bitter comfort" that as a fourth-year student, her classes are small — with at most 20 people attending.

"I'm a little bit more safe than people who are going into lecture halls," she told CBC News, "but I'm still incredibly uncomfortable."

The SFU Student Society's president questioned whether packed lecture halls are safe amidst the most contagious COVID-19 variant to date.

"The burden keeps being put on students to advocate for safety measures," said Gabe Liosis. "We're fighting for our safety. It shouldn't be this way."

Like SFU and UVic, Kwantlen Polytechnic University is resuming in-person classes on Monday. The B.C. Institute of Technology resumed in-person teaching since the New Year. But the University of British Columbia has taken another route, pushing its return to classes to at least early February.

While some have welcomed the return to classes as an opportunity to connect with their peers and teachers face-to-face, and resume club activities, others told CBC News they don't plan on attending classes next week. 

And some are threatening walk-outs in protest.

SFU student Hilary Tsui said she feels "torn" about the return to classes, but that some of her friends welcome the move.

On one hand, Tsui's asthma places her at greater risk from COVID-19. On the other, she misses her student jazz club, and the chance to socialize and study with her classroom peers.

"Some of my friends and I are on different sides of the returning-to-in-person issue," she told CBC News. "But all of us agree that without being given a choice, we feel like we are forced to do this."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the letter signed by 10 student associations garnered 100,000 signatures. In fact, the letter was signed by 10 student associations, which represents more than 100,000 students in B.C.
    Jan 22, 2022 7:24 PM PT
  • A previous version of this story stated Kwantlen Polytechnic University returned to in-person teaching since the New Year. In fact, KPU is resuming in-person classes on Monday, Jan. 24.
    Jan 22, 2022 4:52 PM PT

With files from Michelle Ghoussoub and David P. Ball.

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