As SFU plans return to in-person learning, some profs find COVID-19 contingency plans underwhelming

As Simon Fraser University prepares to return to in-person classes next week, two professors tell CTV News they've received little concrete guidance about how to handle COVID-19-induced absences.

The professors, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared repercussions for speaking out, say they're planning the coming in-person sessions of their courses without any of the direction from their departments that had been promised by university administrators.

One of the two recently tested positive for COVID-19. She told CTV News she has recorded lectures from last year that she will use for one of her courses, and has arranged for a friend in her field to conduct a guest lecture in place of another.

She has presented her plan to her supervisor and received approval for it, she said, but she's not sure how much longer her illness will last, nor what to do if it continues to affect her ability to do her job.

"Absolutely nothing has been communicated to me about when I should be safe to come back, even how much class I'm allowed to miss," she said. "The onus is on me to figure out (what to do) and talk to them about it. And as someone who doesn't have tenure, I don't know. Do I push and go back to campus as soon as I can stand upright for more than a half hour? Do I, you know, stay home until I'm feeling really well?"

"I don't think that I can just cancel a week of material and then have students still get what they need out of the course," she added.

Asked about the professors' concerns, SFU pointed to an email that was sent to all faculty on Jan. 7 outlining university-wide direction for dealing with COVID-19-related absences. 

The document encourages instructors to "build some flexibility" into their syllabi and consider recording lectures to make things easier for students who miss class.

"It has always been OK to miss a class or two," reads the email from Catherine Dauvergne, SFU's academic vice president and provost.

"Thinking about this possibility in advance will make the ups and downs of the term easier to address."

Dauvergne's email also advises instructors to follow existing sick leave and academic concessions policies.

In a statement, the university added:

"The principal contingency that we need to plan for at this time is short-term illnesses of faculty or students. The university has provided advice at a range of levels about how to manage short-term absences, and we’ve strengthened our support units for students and for faculty seeking accommodations. As each faculty and discipline has different needs, each faculty and department has ownership in determining the details of their continuity plan and how it will be operationalized to best meet the needs for that group."

In practice, the professors who spoke with CTV News say the university's advice has left them with more questions than answers.

The professor currently sick with COVID-19 wonders what will happen if her illness leads to a long-term absence. How much material could she reasonably cut from her courses without devaluing the credit students receive for them?

The other professor has concerns for his safety and that of his teaching assistant. He expects students to be uneasy with the return to the classroom, as well. How much can he do to accommodate that?

Their concerns come as some students petition to further delay the start of in-person classes and others petition to ensure that in-person classes resume on Jan. 24 as planned. 

As of Thursday evening, thousands more people had signed onto the petition opposed to resuming classroom instruction, though it's not clear whether all of the signatories of either petition are SFU students.

The Simon Fraser Student Society plans to present the results of a survey of students on this issue at a news conference Friday afternoon.

The professor currently sick with COVID-19 told CTV News she agrees with those petitioning to continue remote learning, though she knows there's a variety of opinions on the topic within the campus community.

"There's also students who very, very strongly do want to be on campus, so I do recognize that the university is in a challenging position in that way," she said. "No matter what decision they make, there are going to be people that are unhappy with them, but I do think there's a right decision and a wrong decision, and I think SFU made the wrong call on this."