In 2020 it was announced that institutions in Canada could welcome back international students to campuses if they had a Covid-19 readiness plan approved by their provincial or territorial government.
“Submitted plans do not contain all of the detail and information necessary to meet federal and provincial requirements”
However, public health officials were inundated with large numbers of readiness plans to review – especially in regions such as Ontario, which has the most designated learning institutions of any province or territory.
Backlogs formed and public officials found it hard to cope with the increased workload. The delays caused concerns for institutions, who were hoping to welcome back students for January 2021.
To deal with this, Ontario’s government told DLIs – including those whose plans had not been approved by officials – that they could bring students on campuses if they signed an attestation confirming their plans met public health requirements.
“Ensuring the protection of students and the public has required institutions to develop thorough, extensive and rigorous plans,” Tamara Gilbert, assistant deputy minister advanced education and learner supports division, said in a letter to DLI’s dated December 23, 2020.
“This, combined with the number of submissions and in-depth reviews of each readiness plan by public health authorities in context of the ongoing pandemic, has resulted in longer than anticipated timelines for plan review and approvals.”
“Based on the reviews to date, officials have found that many submitted plans do not contain all of the detail and information necessary to meet federal and provincial requirements, with some submissions requiring substantial changes prior to approval.
“We appreciate that the current situation, the associated timelines, and required effort are challenging and place pressure on your operations and businesses.”
Gilbert said that as a result, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, the Ministry of Health and public health experts in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health (OCMOH) had worked together to offer a “pathway for remaining private postsecondary institutions”.
She said that this pathway would help to expedite the approval process while ensuring that “readiness plans meet all necessary federal and provincial requirements”.
“The Ministry invites you to review each element of this checklist, and if true, indicate, and sign the attestation”
The letter goes on to explain that institutions could welcome back international students if they signed an attestation saying that they met all of the public health requirements.
“Attached you will find a readiness attestation and checklist prepared by the OCMOH that identifies all federal and provincial requirements to safely welcome international students to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gilbert’s letter said.
“The Ministry invites you to review each element of this checklist, and if true, indicate, and sign the attestation to confirm that your institution’s COVID-19 readiness plan meets each of the requirements in the checklist and that you are able to fully and faithfully implement your plan, and meet the federal and provincial requirements outlined in this checklist.”
Before this change in policy, many DLIs had submitted plans that were deemed inadequate by public health officials.
Reviews of the plans from officials were accessed by immigration consultant and policy analyst Earl Blaney via a freedom of information request.
Numerous issues with plans were highlighted by Ontario’s Ministry of Health. For example, it was noted that one DLI did not have an outbreak management plan or protocol. Another had not clearly outlined the types of mental health services that were available to students.
“There is no thoroughly described plan regarding the cleaning/disinfection of environmental surfaces, quarantined students rooms, ill students rooms, having a stock of an appropriate-level disinfectant ready, etc,” a public health official said in their review of another DLI.
Officials from the MOH also identified problems with quarantine procedures.
“There should be communication to students/family members that extended periods of stay at the hotel may be required if the student/family members test positive and that there may be additional costs associated with that,” one review said.
At the time that it was decided DLIs could approve their own plans, in December, there were still institutions who had not been approved by officials.
An internal email between MCU staff, and seen by The PIE, noted that the policy was developed to find a way to get these institutions approved.
“Following recent discussions amid ongoing concerns about the burden that this work places on public health officials, MCU and MOH worked together to develop a framework for the remaining publicly‐assisted institutions that had not been approved,” the email said.
“That framework was approved by the Chief Medical Officer of Health and subsequently (per the attached memo), remaining colleges and universities were able to fill out the framework and sign an attestation.”
The email added that as a result, public health officials were no longer required to review and sign off on international readiness plans for publicly‐assisted institutions.
“The problem is they were going to miss January intake and international students would not be able to come”
Abandoning the process
“The change in the process was that they abandoned the process altogether, because they weren’t able to get it done,” Blaney told The PIE.
“They were flooded with plans from colleges in Ontario, and they had a hard time getting them reviewed mainly because those that were reviewed did not meet the recommended standards, and they were sent back with expressed concerns.”
“The problem is they were going to miss January intake and international students would not be able to come, the financial losses would be immense,” he said.
Another internal email between the MOH and MCU dated August 24, 2020, showed that the Ontario government was under great pressure from institutions, who were worried that the plans could jeopardise the intake of students for January.
“There was a consultation session with our university sector on an international strategy this morning which our Minister also attended,” the email said.
“Institutions are stressing the urgency of getting plans through provincial approvals, and then on to the federal government. They noted that we only have 3‐4 weeks tops as schools will then lose the January term for international students (as they may make the decision to go to other countries).”
“The sector is very concerned that Ontario has the largest international enrolment across the country, and not getting approvals in a timely way (and that some other provinces may beat us in terms of being able to welcome international students, while Ontario schools are not),” the email said.
“It sounded like they were taking this very seriously… That is until time ran out… Money trumped public safety in this case”
Blaney told The PIE that the MHO moved to make a compromise, which was to “walk away from their pledged role of protecting the public and to allow the schools who couldn’t get their plans through to simply sign off on them themselves”, in his words.
“MHO’s message was clear – we don’t want to sign off on this, for liability reasons,” Blaney added.
He continued,“It sounded like they were taking this very seriously… That is until time ran out. Then none of that mattered, because money trumped public safety in this case.”
The PIE contacted Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities for comment several times, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
“From the onset of the pandemic, Canadian universities pivoted to protect the health and safety of their student communities and remain committed to providing a safe learning experience for all international students while adhering to their public health obligations,” a Universities Canada spokesperson told The PIE.