As reported cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continue to rise, post-secondary students are increasingly voicing their discomfort at being forced to return to in-person classes.
At the University of Victoria, students returned to in-person learning on Monday after two weeks of remote instruction.
Julia Denley, a third-year biology student, said the return to classrooms is erecting a barrier for some people.
“For many students with disabilities, in-person higher education has long presented challenges,” said Denley, who lives with a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
Things like chronic pain, limited stamina and mobility issues can make commuting to campus and sitting in classrooms difficult, she said, creaing a “disproportionate disadvantage” for students with disabilities.
“Online classes have allowed me to expend my limited energy on academics, rather than on managing symptoms in an environment that exacerbates them,” Denley said.
The University of Victoria Society for Students with a Disability said it has seen a large increase in concern.
“Many students are understandably feeling like the university is dismissing their well-being,” said Delicia Jacobs, interim co-president of the society.
“Contrary to what is being said, not all students’ mental health is better in person, especially when in-person [learning] increases student anxiety to a detrimental amount,” Jacobs said.
“Students cannot learn when basic needs like safety are being dismissed. The idea all students’ mental health is better in person is ableism.”
The University of Victoria Faculty Association, which represents about 900 faculty members and librarians, is “very strongly” against the return to in-person teaching. In a survey done this month, close to three-quarters of members said they were very concerned about returning and being infected.
“Our members are faced with are classes with between 200 and 300 students who aren’t socially distanced,” said Lynne Marks, president of the association. “Some of them have babies and toddlers at home. Others are older or living with older family members.”
She said the administration has indicated it will be flexible, allowing educators to offer classes online in case of illness. But the measure falls short of keeping everybody safe from infection, she said.
The university said its decision to return to in-person classes was based on advice from B.C.’s provincial health officer.
At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, students, staff and faculty at staged a walkout Monday, calling for a return to online learning.
The group said students risk infection in class and each time they have to travel to campus on public transit.
When students are sick or self-isolating, they risk missing class due to a lack of audio-visual recording systems in place.