An Open Letter to Simon Fraser University re: Support for Students During Covid-19 Pandemic

March 25th, 2020

An Open Letter to Simon Fraser University re: Support for Students During Covid-19 Pandemic

To SFU Administration, SFU Senate, and all SFU Faculty Deans,

SFPIRG (the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group) is a student-funded, student-led non-profit that works to engage students in social and environmental justice issues, and that provides support to students facing systemic forms of injustice in society at large, and within the campus community.

Since the start of the pandemic, students have been reaching out to us seeking support and strategies for how to manage during these very stressful times. We have heard from international students about their fears for family back home and their concerns around travel. We have talked with students who depend on their work-study income and have been worried about how to survive if it were taken away. We have talked to students who are finding that the fact of a pandemic and the isolation of social distancing is aggravating pre-existing mental health struggles. And sadly, we have heard from students who have experienced racism, specifically anti-Chinese racism, which exists in this society every day, but which has flared up to heightened levels since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have been pleased to see that the University has responded to meet some of these concerns by, for example, providing work-study students with a bursary to make up for lost income, and directing students who face discrimination and harassment to contact the Human Rights Office.

Today we are writing to ask Simon Fraser University to address an additional need. We call on the University to agree to student requests for a change in how courses will be graded for this, and possibly also the next, semester.

We direct attention to this petition created by SFU student Colin Fowler:, and we ask that SFU immediately institute the changes that the petition calls for, specifically that SFU permit each student to make their choice of three options:

  1. a) Pass/Fail instruction, whereas there is no effect on GPA but credits are awarded, or;
  2. b) A grade freeze, where further instruction and examination/work terminates effective immediately and letter grades are awarded based on all coursework up to this date (including possibly making finals optional), or;
  3. c) Allowing students to finish the semester as normal.

This range of options is needed to respond to the diversity of circumstances that students find themselves in. Right now, there are students trying to research, write essays and study for exams, while caring for ill loved ones. Many of them, and their family members, are experiencing extreme financial stress due to layoffs. There are single parents trying to finish coursework and prepare for exams, while also taking care of children who are afraid and hyperactive from being cooped up during this time of social distancing.

For the University to expect that students should simply continue to perform as usual is unreasonable in such unusual and difficult circumstances, and the ongoing pressure to do so is actively harming the well-being of students.

There are many stories we could tell you by way of example. We will tell you one story, of one student who contacted us in distress several days ago. This student is an Indigenous mother raising a young daughter while studying at SFU. In order to succeed at her studies, this student relies on various University supports such as counselling and tutoring. These supports are now not available to her, either at all or, if available, are only available in an online format that is not well suited to her circumstances. This student intentionally set up her employment and study schedule so that she would be able to do her coursework while her child was at school, but of course, right now her child is not attending school, and her employment has fallen through. She and her daughter are both at home trying to stay safe from the coronavirus, and she is doing her best to study for exams and write papers, but she has found that her ability to perform as a student is severely compromised by the demands of parenting an anxious child during a pandemic. Because her funding for university comes from her Band, and is dependent upon her attaining minimum grades, she is terrified that she will not succeed in her classes this semester, and that this will in turn put her continued educational funding in jeopardy.

She is deeply concerned about all of this, while trying to study, keep her child feeling safe, and worrying about how to afford and find food – and the ever elusive commodity, toilet paper – without exposing herself or her child to Covid-19.

This is too much.

SFU has long expressed a commitment to ensuring that Indigenous students are able to equitably access education. Equitable access in these extraordinary circumstances requires that the University honor the requests contained on the aforementioned petition which has, at the time that this letter was written, been signed by over 5,480 people.

For many students, for many reasons, it is necessary to abandon every pretense of business as usual, and that includes how students are graded. As the petition states:

“These are extraordinary times, and SFU must implement extraordinary measures to preserve student mental health. SFU, please do the right thing.”

Warm Regards,