Students Worried About Omicron, Feeling Dismissed as CapU Returns to In-Person Classes

Inflexibility amidst new COVID variants and decreased testing feels profit-driven, students say

Bridget Stringer-Holden // News Editor
Alisha Samnani // Editor-in-Chief

The Capilano University (CapU) community remains divided on the return to in-person classes. While some students and instructors are thrilled to restart in-person learning, many think it’s too soon to return to campus, with worries about COVID-19 exposure at an all time high for many students forced to return to the classroom.

Some students within the School of Business and Professional Studies are particularly unhappy about the return to campus, and feel that online learning should be extended until the end of the Spring 2022 semester. 

“Many people are testing positive… if someone in class did not know they were positive and I’m sitting beside them, the chances of me catching and testing positive are very high,” said Winnie Kwan (she/her), a concerned fourth year Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) student.

This is a frustration shared by many students — some immunocompromised, or living with people who are — anxious about safety on campus and worried about what may happen if they get sick and have to miss classes. 

“Personally, I don’t think now is the time for upper administration to mandate in-person classes,” said Nick Tarasoff, a fourth-year BBA student and former CapU International Business Association president. “On the health side, it doesn’t make sense to me that you would alienate all of these students that are sick — there are a lot — by forcing them to stay home and miss class.” 

In a Jan. 25 email obtained by the Capilano Courier, instructor Azita Shafai stated that although she polled Tarasoff’s class and 81 per cent of students voted to remain online “because they are scared of getting sick,” the problem is that instructors “do not have the ability to change the format.” 

Shafai goes on to write that if business students feel strongly about keeping classes online “[they] should take immediate action and communicate this in writing to our Dean… he can override the format but without his approval we will have to revert back to the face to face format.”

Kwan and Tarasoff were amongst a group of students who emailed Dennis Silvestrone, CapU’s Dean of Business and Professional Studies, to voice their concerns and press for hybrid options. In response, they were assured that the University “takes the well-being of students and employees seriously” — one of six key messages the B.C Centre of Disease Control advised administrators on Jan. 25 to “consider […] if they determine the need to address their campus community.” [Editor’s note: when contacting Silvestrone for comment, the Courier received this exact same line as part of his response.]

Silvestrone then reminded Kwan that she “chose to select an in-person course” and that there were a variety of online courses in the School of Business which might be “a more appropriate option for you as we move forward”. 

While there are select online classes available for business students, Kwan says their course was not one of them — and on top of that, is a necessary class for graduation from the BBA program. 

“Felt like there’s just no changing their minds for in-person classes to be online,” said Kwan, telling the Courier that their only options were to continue with the class or defer graduation for the indefinite future. “It definitely feels like [CapU] is in it for the profit and not the safety of students.”

Tarasoff agreed. “What really disappointed me was the fact that his first email to me was a [seemingly] copy/pasted answer he’s sent to other students contacting him, and in the second email containing his rejection of my [hybrid option] request, referred to students as ‘clientele'” — something Tarasoff described as disheartening. 

“Hearing students be referred to as clientele left me wondering if all this is motivated by profit, and less so the well being of students,” said Tarasoff. 

Recent PHO updates advocating for loosened COVID-19 restrictions and reopenings seem to support his argument. “From what I understand, admission rates have been falling at CapU due to continued pandemic and online classes,” said Tarasoff. “It wouldn’t be a surprise to me that the push for in-person learning is a strategy to increase admission rates.”

In an email statement to the Courier, Silvestrone stated that the university took an “evidence-based approach” informed by public health guidance that reflected what he has been hearing from students and employees. 

“I appreciate and respect that there were students, as well as some of our employees, who have been reluctant to return to campus,” wrote Silvestrone. “At the same time, I have heard from other students and employees of their desire to resume more typical activities that provide a broader student experience. While I regret that not all agree with this decision, I am confident that it was made with the best interests of all of our university community at the forefront.”

Interim results of a survey conducted by the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) show that students have mixed satisfaction levels with the steps the province has taken to ensure safety at post-secondary institutions. Although the majority of students indicated relative satisfaction with the steps CapU has taken to ensure safety of students this term, 62.7 per cent of respondents strongly agree or agree that they are worried about being exposed to COVID-19 at CapU.

The BA.2 variant has been shown to be about 30 per cent more transmissible than the former BA.1 Omicron strain, as well as possibly causing more serious disease. According to a pre-print study out of the University of Tokyo, the variant also appears to be resistant to sotrovimab — an antibody treatment being used to treat Omicron.

Tarasoff finds the inflexibility of the department, along with his observation that instructors seem to have no say in the mode of instruction of their class — regardless of what they or their students want — rather strange. “Why would you force in-person classes when there are sick students and when some classes overwhelmingly want to continue with online instruction?”

Over half of the students surveyed by the CSU also agreed or strongly agreed that CapU should implement safety measures higher than set by the province. “For me it’s not even an issue of safety,” explained Tarasoff. “We readily went online in January just as Omicron was raging — [what’s] changed?”

In response to student concern and the public health guidance issued to post-secondary institutions, the Alliance of BC Students — representing over 80,000 students from B.C. post-secondary institutions — sent a joint letter signed by ten of their member student organizations to the provincial government asking for them to instead encourage remote learning options.

In addition, students at the University of Victoria held a walkout on Feb. 16 to protest the lack of hybrid learning and online options for students who are uncomfortable or unable to return to campus. This followed a Jan. 24 walkout by Simon Fraser University students, accompanied by over 4,000 students signing a petition asking to extend online courses for at least the remainder of the spring semester.

The B.C. CDC has sent Capilano University a shipment of rapid antigen tests to be distributed to students through the CSU. More information on how to obtain your rapid antigen test kit can be found under the Return to Campus page on CapU’s website.

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