The Canadian government expanded travel restrictions on Feb. 22 to include a mandatory three-day hotel stay where travellers are expected to pay out of pocket.
But for many international students, the price tag is too steep to justify a trip back to Canada for school.
“For students, $2,000 is a lot of money,” said Abigail Ting Baker, an international student currently studying at the University of Toronto.
More than 344,000 international students, from 225 countries, were enrolled in formal programs in colleges and universities in the 2018/2019 academic year, according to Statistics Canada.
During a press conference on Jan. 29, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the mandatory hotel stay could cost “more than $2,000”, however, that cost is expected to be lower than originally thought. The new measures are meant to discourage non-essential travel abroad and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within Canada.
Even so, Baker decided to go back home to be with family, with plans to come back for the first semester of the 2020/2021 academic year. However, she decided against it because of the rise of COVID-19 cases.
Staying in Hong Kong during the Canadian school year also has its challenges: Baker often has to attend classes at odd hours due to the time difference. Her classes begin at 10 p.m. HKT (11 a.m. ET) and finish sometime between 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. HKT (12 p.m. to 1 p.m. ET) every day. As well, Baker has a job that begins at 8 a.m HKT (7 p.m. ET) and she arrives back home around 1 p.m. HKT (12 a.m. ET).
Even though Baker is now used to her new routine, it was difficult for her to adapt to the new schedule.
“The worst part about the time difference is the lack of collaboration I have with my peers. All the extra zoom study sessions and gatherings happen in the middle of the night for me so I feel like I’m missing out on that aspect of the university experience,” she said.
Baker also feels isolated.
While my family is here, most of my friends from high school are back in university,” Baker said.
There are some international students who did decide to come back to Canada, but now have to follow a lengthy set of guidelines before entering the country.
Daniel Elizondo is an international student at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan (UBCO) campus in Kelowna, B.C. He went home to Mexico during the winter break and came back to Canada on Jan. 9 to finish his studies.
Elizondo knew it wasn’t guaranteed he’d be let back into Canada if he chose to travel back to Mexico, knowing he didn’t have an essential reason to be in Canada apart from studying.
To be able to return to Canada, he had to be enrolled in a registered designated learning institution (DLI). He also had to prove that he had a valid study permit and that his study program was not suspended or cancelled due to the pandemic.
The hardest part of getting back into Canada, however, was getting a valid COVID-19 molecular test result within 72 hours of his flight. For Elizondo, that meant booking a test at a private lab in Mexico at least one week before his flight back to Canada. It was also expensive: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test cost him approximately $200.
“It was a bit stressful. I wasn’t sure if I’d get my results in time,” he said. “I live in a big city so it’s fairly easy for me to get a test, but I can’t imagine what students living in smaller towns have to go through to get a PCR test.”
The cost of returning to Canada, along with tuition and living expenses, is prohibitively expensive for many international students. Elizondo’s per-credit rate for classes at UBCO is seven times higher than the domestic student rate. He also pays $1,020 every month to rent a studio apartment close to campus.
In response to federal travel and quarantine restrictions, many universities are trying to help students safely enter Canada.
Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at the University of British Columbia (UBC), said the school is trying to figure out the best way to support students who do choose to come back during the COVID-19 pandemic. UBC currently offers resources such as asynchronous learning opportunities and a 24/7 mental health helpline for international students, among others.
“The implications of the federal government’s travel rules are still very much under discussion, as they pertain to students. We’re talking with folks across campus to determine how we can support students who do choose to come back,” said Ramsey. “We are also seeking some additional clarity from the federal government on those travel guidelines.”
During a press conference on Feb. 19, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said, “People need to be prepared for the additional expense of quarantining in a federal facility for up to three days.”
Despite the new obstacles international students now have to face with the travel restrictions, some students have high hopes for the future.
I would love to see the pandemic becoming a thing of the past, and things (slowly) going back to what life was before the pandemic,” said Elizondo.
Paula Tran is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Ontario. She is currently a master’s student at the Ryerson University School of Journalism, and can be followed on Twitter at @paulatr12.