Students at Simon Fraser University (SFU) rallied at the Burnaby campus Monday to protest a return to in-person learning in the midst of the province's fifth wave of COVID-19.
It is the school's first scheduled day back in person since the fall semester, and the students are demanding the university offer courses online so they can avoid coming to campus while the highly-transmissible Omicron variant continues to circulate.
More than 4,000 students have also signed an online petition asking for distance education to continue at SFU for at least one more semester.
The petition also underscores that many students depend on public transit to get to campus, which means they need to be in contact with strangers who may or may not have the virus.
"Students are very uncomfortable right now," SFU Student Society president Gabe Liosis told CBC News. "Up until this point, the university hasn't really been listening to us and have not even attempted to consult with us."
He said students are asking the university to not only continue remote learning until cases of the Omicron variant and hospitalization numbers decrease, but also provide hybrid learning.
Hybrid learning is when some students attend class in-person, while others join the class virtually from home. This could be a safer option for students who are immune compromised during future waves of COVID-19.
"Students can actually choose based on their level of comfort or their level of risk whether or not they would actually like to be on campus and that creates a level playing field for everyone within our community," Liosis said.
He questions whether packed lecture halls are safe amid the most contagious COVID-19 variant to date and says students are also asking the university to provide "free or highly subsidized" N95 masks.
"If we are going to be forced to be in lecture halls ... with potentially hundreds of people, the university should take every single measure possible to make sure that they are trying to mitigate the virus," Liosis said.
Students are also calling for rapid testing and an extension of the tuition deadline.
The institution — which has campuses in Surrey, Burnaby and Vancouver — says it has carefully studied COVID's transmission at other post-secondary schools, and all students and faculty must wear masks indoors at all times.
SFU provost Catherine Dauvergne says the school is following guidance from public health authorities.
"Omicron transmission is occurring in social settings where people spend prolonged periods of time," she said. "It's just not in the lecture hall setting where we see it."
SFU student Hilary Tsui told CBC she feels "torn" about the return to classes, but that some of her friends welcome the move.
"Some of my friends and I are on different sides of the returning-to-in-person issue," she told CBC News. "But all of us agree that without being given a choice, we feel like we are forced to do this."
In addition to SFU, university students are also returning to class Monday at the University of Victoria and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. The University of British Columbia has taken another route, pushing its return to classes until at least early February.