Language schools seek pandemic travel exemptions for international students

Language schools across Canada are asking the federal government to make international students exempt from the latest travel restrictions, which have made it harder and more expensive for students who want to study and live in Canada.

'We are hanging on by our fingernails,' says a Halifax language school as latest rules raise student costs

A pre-pandemic view of graduates from East Coast Language College. The cost of new travel rules associated with studying in Canada has many international students postponing their studies or choosing not to come at all, says a non-profit organization representing more than 200 language education programs. (Submitted by Sheila Nunn)

Since the latest pandemic travel restrictions came into effect, language schools in Canada are finding it even harder to keep their doors open, with a diminishing number of students coming to Canada to learn English and French. 

Sheila Nunn is the president and co-owner of the oldest private language school in Halifax called East Coast Language College, which started in 1998. Nunn first started the business teaching a small group of three students and 23 years later, the college now teaches up to 200 students.

She and other language school owners are asking the federal government to make international students exempt from the three-day hotel quarantine or provide financial support for students who are paying thousands of dollars to come to Canada during a pandemic.

Nunn says the government wage subsidy program helped them get through 2020, but she's not sure how much longer the school can stay open. (Submitted by Sheila Nunn)

"We are hanging on by our fingernails," Nunn said. " We are operating at 25 per cent capacity ... and the future is very bleak."

She said after the federal government announced in February that all non-essential air-travellers must stay in an approved hotel for up to three-nights, Nunn had students contacting the school to ask for a tuition refund or to defer the start of their studies.

"We need the students now," Nunn said, worried about paying bills every month for the 12,400 square-foot downtown Halifax building.

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The federal government says it's heard the concerns but is not making any changes. International students can continue to learn English or French online and many will still be eligible for a federal post-graduate work permit. 

But according to Nunn, students who are interested in coming to study in Canada want to learn more than just a new language.

"For a large percentage of our students, they don't want to just study online. They are coming because an essential part of their language learning is the whole Canadian cultural experience," Nunn said.

Added costs impact students

A national non-profit organization that represents over 200 accredited English and French language education programs says the latest rules make it hard for all but the most wealthy students to travel.

"We are concerned about our diversity ... and of course, we are concerned about keeping our members' programs alive because this could be the last straw for them," said Gonzalo Peralta, the executive director of Languages Canada. 

The newest measure restricts international flights from landing anywhere but four Canadian airports — Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver — so students will have to stay in one of those four cities for up to three nights before flying to their final destination and completing their 14-day quarantine.

"We are basically imposing rules that are discriminating against middle-class students at this point," Peralta said. "When you increase the cost of entry to Canada from $500 or $1,000 to $4,000 or $5,000, many students are saying 'No, we are not going to Canada.'"

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In a survey done by Languages Canada, Peralta said 35 per cent of students said they were willing to pay the cost of the 14-day quarantine in a hotel before meeting their host family, but when you add the cost of the extra three nights in a government-authorized hotel, just three per cent of students were still willing to pay to come to Canada.

He said a program called Study Safe Corridor was set up by Languages Canada last year where each student was picked up at the airport safely by a designated driver, placed in a hotel to complete their two-week quarantine and provided with food, access to mental wellness counselling, and a mobile device to stay in touch with their friends and family back home and to be contacted by Canadian authorities.

"We already have the corridors set up and these corridors are overseen by federal and provincial health and education authorities. In other words, you can't just come in as a student. You have to prove that you need to be here," Peralta said. 

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Sheila Nunn, the co-owner of East Coast Language College, says international students who are coming to study and live in Canada during the pandemic must provide a lot of documentation and navigate through a complicated process.

He said the latest travel measures are putting students more at risk of contracting COVID-19 because they are being exposed to more people as they travel between the arrival cities and different hotels before reaching their final destination. 

A 'difficult' decision to come back

Minami Kouchi was studying English in Halifax when she had to return home to Japan at the start of the pandemic.

Kouchi said she first came to Canada in July 2019 to learn English so she could apply for a baking and pastry program at a post-secondary institution and eventually open her own business in Canada. The 25-year-old said she's glad she made the decision to return in November — before the new travel measures came into effect.

"It was a difficult time to come back to Canada because there is still a pandemic going on," Kouchi said. "It cost me almost $2000 to stay at the hotel [in Halifax] for 14 days and almost $2000 to buy my flight ticket. It's usually around $1500."

She said the cost to travel from Japan to Canada increased because of the infrequent flights and in the end she paid a total of almost $7000 in travel and accommodation expenses.

Minami Kouchi said when she left for Japan at the end of March 2020 she thought the pandemic would soon end and she would be back in Halifax in a few months. (Submitted by Minami Kouchi)

"My parents covered everything for my study abroad and I feel bad, but I appreciate my parents a lot," Kouchi said. "When I was in Japan, I didn't speak English at all, so my parents let me come again."

She said she thought about staying in Japan for two more years and waiting until the pandemic ends because of the overall cost, an alternative many of her friends have chosen.

"The students that come here are doing more than learning English ... they want to learn the Canadian way of life, so they are willing to save for years just to come here," Peralta said.

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino said in an email to CBC News that the federal government is "aware of these challenges ... [but] there aren't plans to alter the requirements at this time."

"We have taken steps to create flexibility and accommodate students who can't come to Canada right now, for whatever reason. Most notably, students can take their entire program online and still be eligible for the post-graduate work permit," he said.

However, Peralta is worried language schools won't survive much longer.

"If things don't change quickly enough, we will see a decimation of a sector that employs 19,000 Canadians." 

With files from Canada Tonight

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