COVID-19: a test of our mettle and our humanity

March 15, 2020

Anxiety levels in British Columbia have increased markedly in response to rising numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases; the World Health Organization’s declaration Wednesday that COVID-19 represents a global pandemic, and directives Thursday from our Provincial Health Officer (PHO) urging social distancing, advising against international travel, and calling for cancellation of events involving 250 or more people. At the same time, the PHO has advised that there is no need for post-secondary institutions to close.

The question facing SFU and other universities late last week in the wake of these events was how best to discharge our primary duty to protect the health and safety of our community in a manner consistent with the PHO’s advice and our continuing commitment to provide educational services to students. Our initial response was to eliminate class sizes in excess of 250 students, and to plan to provide support for instructors who chose to shift away from in-person teaching. It quickly became clear, however, that this approach would not be workable.

Instructors reported that many students were not coming to class, some because of self-isolation requirements, and others for precautionary reasons such as having underlying health conditions. To have some classes continue with face-to-face teaching while others moved to alternative modes of instruction would result in inequities amongst students and, with increasing demands for self-isolation, in unmanageable requirements for accommodation.

Moreover, a variable approach would have represented a less-precautionary response to the PHO’s call for social distancing than an institution-wide approach.

For these reasons and in consultation with the Province, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria took decisions Friday to announce institution-wide shifts from in-person teaching to other modes of instruction.   

The University is backing up this transition with additional communications and support. Information is being posted to the SFU home page as it becomes available, and FAQs are being updated regularly at Meanwhile, support is being put in place to help instructors and students address this difficult situation.   

I appreciate how disruptive and challenging this sudden shift is for many SFU instructors. While some may be able to move to online or other modes of remote instruction readily, others require time to figure out how best to deliver their courses, exams and other forms of evaluation. As a result, instructors have been given until Thursday, March 19 to plan and implement this transition. We will discontinue any in-person teaching, including exams, beginning Tuesday, March 17.

Many students will also be inconvenienced by this change in the nature of their educational experience. And I am keenly aware that students will miss out on some important memories together, such as planned events and last day of classes. This is a regrettable consequence of ensuring, in the face of COVID-19, that we do all we can to protect their health and safety while delivering on our educational commitments. I want to reassure students that in addition to maintaining academic programs, campuses and residences remain open, and services and supports continue to be available. For students who choose to return home to other parts of the region, country or world, we are working hard to ensure accessibility to courses and student supports.

This is also a disruptive time for our staff, who take great pride in supporting students to achieve their educational goals. We are doing our best to balance the need to take precautions with our priority to support students. Detailed advice for staff is being prepared and will be shared early this week.

These are difficult decisions being made in a challenging environment, and I want to thank students, faculty and staff for their patience and goodwill. COVID-19 is testing everyone’s mettle. Feelings of helplessness and apprehension are natural accompaniments to any natural disaster. But so too is our capacity for benevolence and calm.

Social distancing does not mean social disconnection. On the contrary, during this stressful time, we need to reach out and connect with each other more than ever, albeit in ways that avoid close physical proximity. Thankfully, our communications channels and social networks provide ample means for doing this. We are fortunate also to live in a country where responses to a health emergency are grounded in evidence, not politics, and where access to health care is based on need, not wealth.  

Though the COVID-19 pandemic knows no boundaries, neither does our shared humanity. We are all in this together. And, if we pull together, we can come through this a better and more compassionate community, province and country.