Nova Scotia

N.S. international students face steep hotel bills for quarantine

Some international Nova Scotia university students are upset they being told to pay steep fees to quarantine in a hotel or residence, even if they have their own apartments. While it's a school by school decision, many institutions say provincial rules are forcing stricter plans.

Province says international students can quarantine in their own place, but some universities require hotels

Taylor Hersch is an international student from the United States, studying for her biology Ph.D. at Dalhousie University. (Danny Abriel)

University students and staff in Nova Scotia are calling for equal treatment for international students when it comes to COVID-19 rules, so they can quarantine in their own homes rather than expensive hotels.

Taylor Hersh is an international student from the United States working on her Ph.D in biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

She'll have to start the new year spending hundreds of dollars to quarantine in a school-approved hotel when she gets to the city this January, rather than her own apartment, where she's already paying rent.

"For someone who's been here for over four years and has a lease and has a way to order groceries and do the quarantine safely, it just feels crazy that I can't use that option," Hersch said, from her family's home in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hersh said the two-week isolation period is vital, but questions why international students are singled out. If a Canadian student or resident flies into Halifax after visiting the United States, for example, they can still isolate in their own home.

"It's not really country-specific risk that's being monitored, but the citizenship of the people who are traveling," Hersch said.

Anyone coming into the country now also has to use the ArriveCAN app before checking in at the airport or crossing the border. Through the app, people have to include their travel and contact information, quarantine plan, and COVID-19 symptom self-assessment.

Hersch said if this federal tool is good enough for any other foreign traveller, it should be good enough for international students.

Nova Scotia's COVID-19 provincial requirements say post-secondary institutions have an extra "oversight responsibility" for their international students during their 14-day quarantine, whether on or off-campus. 

This could include arranging them a place to stay, getting transportation from the airport, and providing meals.

It's a school-by-school decision on how this oversight is handled, and Hersch said Dalhousie has told her the only option for her would be two weeks in a hotel.

According to the Dalhousie website, that cost to quarantine (which includes three meals per day) is $1,627.36 including taxes and fees. The school covers half for students who are new to Dalhousie or returning to study for the first time since the pandemic, but not if students are coming back from the December study break. 

Saint Mary's University international students living off-campus have to quarantine in either a hotel or residence room when they come into Halifax, even if they have an apartment. (CBC)

Other schools have similar plans, with the Saint Mary's University hotel option running around $1,800, or $1,700 for those at Cape Breton University. Some schools have subsidized part of these costs.

Margaret Murphy, SMU's external affairs associate vice-president, said in an email they are expecting around 100 international students for the 2021 winter semester. 

She said to meet the requirements for oversight and support for returning international students, the hotel/campus housing options "were all that was deemed suitable" to meet this standard.

Murphy said since institutions vary by size, compactness or campus, availability of accommodation, and percentage of international students, each institute had to have its own tailored plan.

Federal guidelines say that universities and colleges must have a COVID-19 readiness plan approved by their province or territory that "describes how they will manage the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for international students," but the word "oversight" is not used.

Nothing preventing self-isolation in private homes: province

The province says there's nothing in the rules preventing international students from isolating at home.

Their requirements "do not prohibit international students from quarantining in private accommodation," provincial spokesperson Marla MacInnis said in an email.

She said universities and colleges just have to show how they will follow the oversight requirements and get their plans approved by Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health.

Acadia University has done just that, according to Sherri Turner, spokesperson for the Wolfville school.

She said they have built a plan that allows off-campus international students to self-isolate in their apartments "under our care and supervision." It includes daily in check-ins with the student. 

Hersch said while it's great to know that there are no rules preventing her from staying in her own place, it hasn't changed Dalhousie's policy.

She is calling on the province and post-secondary schools to make sure this is possible for those who want it, and hopes Acadia might share their plan more widely so other schools can mimic if possible.

The reality is this oversight rule has essentially tied most schools to one hotel or residence, especially if they have large numbers of international students to check on, said Saint Mary's University Students' Association (SMUSA) president Bryn deChastelain.

Bryn de Chastelain is president of the Saint Mary’s University Students’ Association (SMUSA). (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

No matter where the policies are coming from, deChastelain said the international students are the ones who get hurt.

"The biggest thing that all of us are asking for right now is just the equal treatment or equitable treatment of all students," he said.

He's heard from some students who won't be coming back to Halifax this semester because they just don't have the money for isolation fees, and will study online from abroad instead.

A group representing 20 unions or associations with over 20,000 college and university employees and students across the province is also concerned about the oversight issue.

Advocacy group says rule 'biased'

On Dec. 18, the Students, Staff and Faculty Alliance (SSFA) sent a letter to Lena Metlege Diab, Nova Scotia's labour and advanced education minister.

"It seems unfair, and frankly, biased, to require this degree of supervision, while their Canadian counterparts are permitted to isolate in their own residences," said the letter from SSFA president Robert Scott Stewart.

Even though most university courses are held online this year, allowing some students to remain in their home countries, Stewart said delaying a return could put students at risk of violating their study visas, or affect their immigration status.

The group is calling on Diab's department to work with the schools to find cheaper quarantine strategies, or provide funding for those students who have to isolate this way. 

When asked about the oversight responsibility and different rules for international students, the province said they "highly value" the contributions international students make to Nova Scotia's social, cultural and economic development. 

"For many, the quarantine period will be their first experience in Canada and it's important that they feel supported once they arrive in Nova Scotia," said government spokesperson Marla MacInnis.