Returning to Canada a hurdle for international students this fall as Ottawa loosens restrictions

Coming to Canada in the fall, be it the first time or the fourth, comes with a range of logistical challenges and mental transitions for international students. But with COVID-19 changing rules and expectations all over the world, students that want to come to Canada have been met with travel restrictions and housing uncertainty.

For first-year arts student Ilias Ouali, coming to Canada would allow him to fully participate in his synchronous classes and discussion groups.

“Since I’ve been accepted to UBC, I’ve tried to check my emails every day, go on the website and see if there’s any news,” said Ouali. “I’ve made a habit of it.”

He’s been navigating a maze of FAQs and federal guidelines to see if he’s eligible to come to Canada.

“Even though I’m getting my visa, I don’t know if I’ll be accepted at the border,” said Ouali. “Behind going to Canada, there’s a lot of commitment, in terms of paying for housing, for a quarantine plan, the plane ticket and all that.”

Ouali currently lives in Paris, nine hours ahead of Vancouver’s Pacific Time Zone. Fellow students across the world stand to face difficult schedules this upcoming year as morning and afternoon classes stretch to midnight and beyond.

With international students facing a range of circumstances to start this school year, they have had difficulty deciding whether they want to come to Canada, if they are allowed to.

Restrictions in flux, students are fazed

Restrictions for international students are constantly changing. Marco Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, announced changes that will allow international students to enter Canada on October 20 if the province recognizes that institution as having a COVID-19 readiness plan in place.

Before that, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has laid out two main requirements for entry into Canada. First, students must be travelling for an essential, non-discretionary purpose. Second, these students must either have a valid study permit, have received study permit approval on or before March 18, 2020 or be travelling directly from the United States.

International student travel for education will be considered non-discretionary and non-optional beginning October 20, the ministry said.

In an October 2 email obtained by The Ubyssey, Michelle Suderman, director of UBC International Student Development, said she expects the university to meet the province’s standards.

“We expect UBC to be on the initial list of approved schools whose international students may travel to Canada and will update you when more details become available,” Suderman wrote.

The uncertainty of individual cases has led students to share stories of denial of entry on social media. Reddit user u/paco0105 commented that after hearing the story of a student who had signed a new lease in August being denied entry, they personally decided against returning to Canada for the time being.

UBC International Student Advising (ISA) has offered guidance for students travelling to Canada during COVID-19, laying out the required documents to enter Canada and self-isolation plans.

“In response to the pandemic, we have seen an unprecedented flood of requests from students and parents looking for case-specific information, which we continue to provide,” said Suderman in an interview. The ISA also offers a support letter for students travelling due to internet restrictions or time zone hardship.

Suderman said that students can reach the ISA by Zoom appointment or by email, but given the complexity of the current situation, students may need to wait a bit longer for email responses.

Despite the guidance it provides, the ISA cautions that discretion for entry into the country ultimately remains with Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials.

Self-isolating, now and later

Students arriving this fall will also have to deal with a range of housing situations as they settle into self-isolated living.

Self-isolation may seem straightforward for those living alone, but for those moving into shared accommodations on or off campus, it poses a logistical nightmare.

For now, there’s a patchwork solution, as UBC has backtracked on its policy of fee-based self-isolation accommodation, offering complimentary 14-day self-isolation packages through the end of the fall term.

“We’ve been working with Student Housing and Community Services (SHCS) to ensure that the financial burden of self-isolation units isn’t being passed onto students when self-isolation is mandatory,” said AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Georgia Yee. “We’ve also been working to hold SHCS accountable to ensure that those refunds are being provided to students that have begun self-isolation [with SHCS].”

For those living on-campus, the potential for outbreaks and subsequent residence closures makes housing security even more uncertain. Recent additions to residence contracts allow for SHCS to require students to vacate without being offered alternate accommodations. The clause has since been amended to remove the phrase “without being offered alternate accommodations,” though not explicitly stating that alternate accommodations are guaranteed.

“We at the AMS have been expressing our concerns about this clause, especially since SHCS is under no obligation to provide notice, and especially since student renters deserve to have their rights to safety and fair treatment communicated transparently to them,” said VP Academic and University Affairs Georgia Yee.

First years still shut out

Suderman said that UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono spoke with IRCC Minister Marco Mendicino during a Universities Canada call in early May regarding the impacts on international students due to the pandemic.

“The majority of international students who will be new to UBC this term, would not be exempt from travel restrictions, would not have the right Canadian immigration documents to travel at this time,” said Suderman. "UBC and institutions across the country have been working with the IRCC since March to advocate for travel restrictions to be lifted for international students. We are eager for students to travel to Canada to start their studies.”

Many first-year international students like Ouali face one other issue — odds are, they didn’t get approved for a study permit soon enough.

Though he wanted to arrive in Vancouver this fall, current restrictions won’t allow Ouali, who still hasn’t receive permit approval after the March 18 deadline, to fly into Canada from outside the United States. And with classes going online for the entire school year at UBC and other institutions and permit processing times increasing due to COVID-19, it remains unsure if restrictions will change.

Nonetheless, many international students still hope that they can step foot on campus in the near future.

“I understand that in this situation it’s not easy to always follow the same guidelines, everything has to change really quickly, and I accept that,” said Ouali. “It’s just a little bit tricky.”