‘Unknown zone’: Which international students can come back to Ontario?

COVID-19 readiness plans. Quarantine. Delayed permits. International students who planned to attend college or university in this province are facing obstacles on their path back to the classroom
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Nov 06, 2020
International students are raising awareness of their challenges on Twitter using the hashtag #letstudentsenter. (Twitter)

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When Yigit Ozcelik heard that the border would be open to international students in October, he was excited, but the verdant lawns at the University of Toronto still felt unreachable to him in Istanbul. Last month, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced that post-secondary institutions with a provincially approved COVID-19 readiness plan would be able to welcome international students again; since March, a border closure had limited the return of many students from outside the country, leaving Ozcelik and other international students feeling isolated from the communities they’d built in Canada. “It's pretty difficult for us to feel like we have a grasp on how things are changing,” says Ozcelik.

Despite his uncertainty, Ozcelik is one of the lucky ones. His school’s COVID-19 readiness plan has been approved by the province, and he has a valid study permit, which makes him, according to IRCC guidelines, eligible to enter the country. But leaving Istanbul in the middle of the fall semester and looking for a place to live in Toronto in the middle of a pandemic weren’t appealing options to him — so he plans to return in time for the university’s winter semester in January. For other students experiencing a backlog in study-permit processing caused by the COVID-19 or waiting for their universities or colleges to appear on the list of approved institutions, there are still more questions than answers.

“I think that [the list] fixes part of the problem,” says Bryn de Chastelain, chair of the Canadian Association of Students Alliance. “But I think there will definitely be more work to do in trying to get more international students back to Canada.”

Sanchari Sen Rai, CEO and co-founder of Education Consultants Canada, a Mississauga-based consultancy that provides support to students looking to study abroad, has called the situation an “unknown zone” for many students. And, while many students have continued their studies online from their home countries, they aren’t all happy about it. “The whole idea of going abroad and doing international studying was to also experience the country, the environment, the school setup,” says Sen Rai.

Others have questioned why only a relatively low number of post-secondary institutions have been approved to receive international students in Ontario, which is home to 48 per cent of Canada’s international-student population. A list updated on November 3 by IRCC lists 27 — less than 6 per cent of the total number of post-secondary institutions that are approved to host international students in Ontario. The Ministry of Colleges and Universities told TVO.org last week that the province had received COVID-19 readiness plans for all 45 publicly assisted DLIs and 170 private DLIs and approved 21 publicly assisted DLIs (13 public universities and eight public colleges) and five private DLIs. The remaining plans are currently under review. IRCC says that the list will be updated as provinces and territories approve the readiness plans of additional institutions.

Even when a student’s school does make it on the list, they are left to contend with extended processing times for a study permit. While no processing centres have completely shut down because of COVID-19, IRCC says, many visa-application centres around the world have closed temporarily, and that’s had an impact on processing times. According to the IRCC website, study-permit processing times for international students from China, India, and South Korea, —three countries with the highest number of study-permit holders in Canada between 2015 and 2019 — can range anywhere from 16 to 30 weeks.

BG, who asked that his full name be withheld, was set to begin his fully funded Ph.D. program in September at McMaster University. His professor, he says, has advised him to set his sights on the winter semester — but he has been waiting in Rasht, Iran, for the study permit he applied for in April to be approved, and he doesn’t know whether he will be able to return to Canada in time for January. “[There are] many other students like me,” says BG, referring to those who have taken to social media to ask IRCC to #letstudentsenter.

Experts say that, while the list may have its limitations, it is the result of months of coordination between federal and provincial governments, local public-health authorities, and the educational sector. “In a federation that is as complex and as diverse as ours, trying to navigate all of this has been a significant exercise,” says Larissa Bezo, president and chief CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

Craig Fowler, VP growth, innovation, and external relations at Algoma University, notes that his university began to put things in motion as far back as March. “When it became clear that the borders were going to be closed, we started working on what the requirements and guidelines would be if [international] students were to come [back],” he says, adding that it wasn’t until the summer that they began working hand in hand with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, the Ministry of Health, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and local health agencies.

According to four representatives from universities and colleges across Ontario whose plans have been approved by the province, the process involved their working with local public-health institutions in their region to adhere to a list of guidelines set out by the Ministry of Health. A draft guideline was then submitted to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities, adjustments were made as needed, and it was then sent for review by Ontario’s chief medical officer of health. A ministry spokesperson told TVO.org via email that, once approved, the names of institutions were shared with the federal government and institutions were notified.

The plan, which one administrator says was up to 77 pages long for her university, had to include a 14-day quarantine plan, details of COVID-19 testing resources for students, and a plan for a safe return to campus after quarantine. Most institutions have made arrangements with local hotels to provide accommodation and food for the students during the 14-day quarantine period. At Loyalist College, says CEO and president Ann Marie Vaughan, the cost of the quarantine is shared between the college and the student.

An IRCC spokesperson noted in an email to TVO.org that the guidelines also encourage institutions to assist students in getting provincial or territorial health care (in provinces or territories that extend coverage to international students) or comprehensive private health insurance, as appropriate; to check in with students during their quarantine period and have a plan to address students who become symptomatic; and to establish a contingency plan on safely housing international students in the case of an outbreak. “DLIs have been advised that these guidelines should be applied to students living on and off campus, and that they should be prepared to provide more support to students who are new to their institution and/or to Canada, they wrote.

“We basically [have] to demonstrate how we can receive international students while maintaining and ensuring the health and safety of our community, of our other students, and the Durham Region,” says Marianne Marando, associate vice-president academic (enrolment and international education) at Durham College.

Bezo says that, while these new measures will not immediately lead to an influx of international students, she is hopeful about the progress being made. “Everyone wants to see this opening up and wants to see this opening up in as safe and as measured a way as possible,” says Bezo.

She also points out that the current intra-agency participation to process the arrival of international students is likely to continue for as long as the pandemic does: “That is going to continue to be the reality for as long as we're dealing with this situation.”

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