Thousands sign SFU students' petition for delayed return to classroom

A petition calling for Simon Fraser University to delay its scheduled return to in-person classes has gathered roughly 2,500 signatures in the four days since it launched. 

SFU joined several other B.C. post-secondary institutions in beginning its current term remotely due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 throughout the province. 

The University of British Columbia has since delayed its return to in-person classes a second time, with the return to classroom instruction for most students now scheduled for Feb. 7.

In-person classes at SFU are still scheduled to resume on Jan. 24, and that has left many students anxious, according to Jess Dela Cruz, vice president of events and student affairs for the Simon Fraser Student Society.

"There's a lot of students at SFU who are so scared and uneasy (and) have high anxiety about returning to in-person classes on Jan. 24," Dela Cruz told CTV News.

She said she's been hearing from students who are immunocompromised or live with people who are at a higher risk of complications from a COVID-19 infections.

Dela Cruz said the SFSS has been lobbying the university for more remote learning options, as well as better access to rapid testing and N95 masks for students.

She said students have been receiving emails from the university with information about COVID-19 safety, including things like tips on how to wear masks properly and reminders about physical distancing.

Dela Cruz said she finds the emails unhelpful.

"I have a lecture that is 100 people, and there are bigger lecture sizes, up to 300," she said, and wondered how she is supposed to maintain distance from others in such a setting.

"They're requesting us to do these things, but aren't giving us adequate support to do so," she added. "Remote learning is feasible. It's been done before. It's optionable, but SFU is pushing us to go back to in-person and it's extremely frustrating."

In a statement, the university said returning to in-person learning is important, and noted that the perspective articulated by the students signing the petition is not the only one SFU students hold.

"Amongst our student body we know that there are a very wide range of opinions and also preferences," the university said. "We are guided in our decision by public health expertise, our own data on student impact, and this important study on mental health impacts for young people done by the BCCDC." 

Dela Cruz disagreed with the university's assertion about mental health, saying the anxiety of feeling unsafe at in-person activities is also detrimental to students' mental health, and is something the university could avoid by maintaining remote learning options.

"The two-week period of remote learning and teaching to start the term was to provide time to put learning and research continuity plans in place" SFU's statement continued.

"Faculty and staff groups have established plans to accommodate potential absences. Our layers of protection, including masks, distancing and hand washing, remain in place, and we have also completed extensive work on ventilation systems."