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'Irresponsible': Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance calls out SFU over return to in-person classes amid COVID-19 surge

Numerous universities across the province held off on in-person instruction to start winter term
Simon Fraser University Burnaby campus.

The Simon University Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance is speaking out against the school's decision to return to in-person instruction on Jan. 24, calling the move "irresponsible at best" and "eugenicist at worst." 

On Dec. 23, following many other universities, SFU announced a temporary two-week shift to remote learning from Jan. 10 to 23. 

The extremely transmissible Omicron variant was the driving factor for institutions to move to online learning while B.C. saw record-breaking daily case counts and record hospitalizations.

"SFU has had a very safe and successful return to campus," the school said in a statement on Dec. 23. 

"Safety remains our top priority, and includes the mental health and wellness of our students, faculty and staff. 

"This brief shift to some of our learning and teaching will provide time to learn more about the situation and consider additional tools to support a full in-person return."

With Jan. 24 quickly approaching, the disability and neurodiversity alliance says the plan is ill-advised and deeply ableist towards members of the SFU community that have additional risk factors for the virus. 

"We believe that this plan is not only ill-advised but deeply ableist and ageist towards those members of the SFU community who have additional risk factors for COVID-19," the statement released on Jan. 17 states.

"No one is free from the risk of COVID-19, even the Omicron variant. While initial reports suggest that the Omicron variant is milder than past variants of COVID, that does not make it a mild condition

"It is a far more transmissible variant, making it extremely dangerous to those who are at high risk from COVID. Those members of our community who are immunocompromised, have pre-existing health conditions or are older should not have to decide between their lives and their education."

The group also says the high transmission of Omicron makes it dangerous, especially to those who are disabled, because of its strain on the health care system. 

"With increasing hospitalizations and a currently strained health care system at 95.6% capacity, disabled and neurodivergent community members are facing barriers to care for other conditions, impacting quality of life and our physical and mental health.

"SFU’s plan has inadequate safety measures, instead advising staff and students to prepare to get COVID rather than avoid it. This level of risk is irresponsible at best and eugenicist at worst. It operates on the assumption that all SFU students, staff and faculty are young, healthy and without any pre-existing conditions."

The statement released by the alliance says the group is calling on the university to implement the following policies: 

  • Immediately change the policy of in-person teaching to provide a mix of in-person, online, and hybrid classes
  • Delay a full return to in-person classes until 90% of SFU community members have access to a third vaccine shot and transmission rates are little to none
  • Support and assist instructors in setting up as many options as possible for their courses, including live-streamed lectures, lecture recordings, and counting virtual forms of engagement (e.g. posting on Canvas discussion board) as participation
  • Support and assist instructors in implementing best practices for accessibility and universal design in their courses
  • Expand online course offerings
  • Provide financial aid via bursaries for students facing barriers to technology and students impacted by COVID in their families and households
  • Extend course drop and refund deadlines
  • Extend tuition payment deadline
  • Increase library loans of laptops and other electronic devices for learning
  • Strengthen protection measures for in-person and hybrid classes, including ASHRAE standard ventilation for all open rooms and closure of rooms that do not meet standards, restriction of class sizes to permit adequate physical distancing, distribution of N95 and equivalent masks, on-campus COVID testing and vaccination
  • Begin a wide consultation with the student body, faculty, staff, and other SFU community members
  • Ensure these consultations prioritize marginalized community members and their representative groups, including disabled and neurodivergent students, BIPOC students, 2SLGBTQIA+ students, international students, students who are parents, students who are essential workers, janitorial staff, and those in high-risk groups for adverse COVID outcomes
  • Publicize the findings of these consultations and commit to improving or changing policy to support the needs of a diverse community.

"SFU has a responsibility to keep its students, faculty, staff, and wider community safe – and it is up to us to ensure that they uphold that responsibility.

"We join the voices of those calling to take the Omicron variant seriously and protect the SFU community."

The full five-page statement can be found online