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Canada adjusts to huge movement of students, online shift

In response to the growing COVID-19 epidemic, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau has announced the country will be closing its borders to non-citizens and those without permanent resident status starting on March 18. The announcement is expected to impact a large number of international students, many of whom are in Canada and now considering travelling to return home.

Downtown Vancouver is no longer bustling - some international students are considering returning home early to study online. Photo: The PIE

"Those that are considering staying are asking how they will afford to stay here over the summer"

Canada is the world’s third-leading destination of international students, with 642,000 in 2019. Some 56% come from India and China.

Stakeholders explained that many international students, planning to return home for a summer break anyway, may now consider leaving early, not just because of the travel ban but also because institutions were making all courses accessible online.

“Our priority now is international students on campus”

Speaking from self-isolation in Ottawa, Trudeau pointed out that the government was acting on the advice of public health officials in its new travel rules.

“It is a significant step. It is a step that we take in exceptional circumstances, but it is the right step,” Trudeau explained. Canadians abroad are also being urged to return home and a loan program established to help this happen.

As a result of the measures, international offices in Canada are faced with “unprecedented daily changes and challenges”, director of the internationalisation office at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Sonja Knutson, told The PIE News.

“The FAQ’s that we wrote on Friday no longer applied as of Monday,” she said.

“Our priority now is international students on campus – while international students are welcome to stay in Canada, most are worried – they don’t know whether they should return home immediately and finish their terms by distance, or whether they should stay.”

Knutson said the biggest unknown is whether students can gain re-entry to Canada come September.

“Those that are considering staying are asking how they will afford to stay here over the summer as most were planning to work and many workplaces are reducing staffing.

“We can’t give blanket advice – situations are case-by-case, taking in study permit expiry, health insurance, and status of the home country; some have closed borders already,” she added.

“We have sent messages to our students abroad ensuring they are making their way home – Memorial had already taken that step on March 15, but now the federal government has also stated that all Canadians and permanent resident are urged to return.”

At Trent University, Cath D’Amico, director, international, told The PIE, that there was not necessarily a level of panic among students – a number of whom had seen an early coronavirus curve in Asia – but that reassurance about their decisions and the legitimacy of their study permit were paramount.

[Students] needed those kinds of reassurances that their study, right now, is still legitimate, even though it’s transitioned to an online delivery, and that their future studies would not be compromised because of the switch,” she related.

But some educators have taken to social media to voice their concerns over the impact the measures will have on international students.

Vice president partnerships at Camosun College in British Columbia, Geoff Wilmshurst, told The PIE that the institution is focused on assisting the return of its study abroad students all of whom are in Europe this semester.

“We have offered additional monies to assist them to book a flight home and offering other supports.

“This, of course, will impact our spring and summer semesters. Our efforts are focussed on retaining international students that are currently at the college and those that are in-country and looking for study opportunities,” Wilmshurst added.

Gabriela Facchini, manager of International Business Development and Partnerships (Latin America, Europe, Turkey, Korea and Japan) at Sheridan College in Ontario said that her institution’s number-one priority right now is to “do our part in helping our community, our province and Canada to slow down the curve of infection of COVID-19”.

“Sheridan and I believe most, if not all, public institutions have closed this week to allow faculty the time to adjust the curriculum to go online for the rest of the semester,” she told The PIE, adding that other staff will work from home as March 18, and that a webpage has been set up to help the community stay informed.

Facchini said that the closing of Canadian borders means that May semester new students may not be able to start their programs at Sheridan.

“To that effect, we are allowing students to defer their start dates. Also, Sheridan will issue a full refund of fees if students are not able to travel to Canada [and] deferrals of fees and enrollment to January 2021 may be requested and approved where possible.”

“As the situation is so fluid, it is hard to predict what will happen in the weeks ahead”

Additionally, Facchini told The PIE that some students have requested to go home for the remainder of the semester.

“We are uncertain right now if this would have any effect on their eligibility for Post-Graduate Work Permits once students graduate,” she added, saying that it also may be difficult for students to return to Canada should the situation changes and in-person classes were to resume.

“As the situation is so fluid, it is hard to predict what will happen in the weeks ahead.”

Knutson at Memorial agreed: “it is an unprecedented time for us, we are all leaning on lessons learned from previous crises but this current crisis goes far beyond what we have previously experienced.”

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