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International students navigate numerous barriers as they look to begin fall classes


VANCOUVER — A prospective student from Pakistan who will be enrolling in Vancouver's Simon Fraser University says she's "freaking out step-by-step" as she navigates hurdles to get her education, made far more difficult by COVID-19.  

Zohra Shahabuddin said she spent sleepless nights worrying about putting together her documents for her student visa application to Canada. 

Her visa was approved last week. She will be working toward her master's degree in publishing.

"I haven't had a chance to get excited about coming to Vancouver," she said with a laugh.

"My mind is occupied. First it was visa, now it is flights and quarantine.”  

International students coming to Canada this year as COVID-19 cases rise and fall in various parts of the world face numerous barriers such as visa backlogs, lack of vaccinations, quarantine measures and fewer available flights.

A spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the department has continued to accept and process study permit applications throughout the pandemic.

It updated its website to show that complete study permit applications submitted for the fall 2021 semester by May 15 would be processed by Aug. 6. However, some applications may take longer because they are incomplete, said Nancy Caron in a statement.

"Against the backdrop of the global pandemic and its related challenges, we wanted to provide a target date for those planning to begin their studies in the fall," she said.

The department issued nearly 100,000 study permits in the first four months of 2021, up from about 66,000 during the same period last year and about 96,000 from January to April of 2019, she said.

Muhammad Saad has been admitted to Centennial College in Toronto for a diploma in project management, and had his first shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. 

He said he's worried about access to that second shot. 

"It depends on supplies," he said. "My second dose is in mid-July. I hope vaccine will be available in Pakistan at that time."

Several universities will require students living in residence to be vaccinated against COVID-19 come September.

Students who are unable to access a vaccine before move-in will have 14 days to do so, said Sandy Welsh, the University of Toronto's vice-provost of students. 

Western University also said those who can't access vaccines will have 14 days to get vaccinated on campus. 

Those who aren't fully vaccinated will need to follow federal government requirements, said Caron.

To be considered fully vaccinated, those entering Canada will have to show they received both shots or a combination of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson at least 14 days before entering the country, she said.

Shahabuddin said that means she'll have to find another $2,000 to stay in quarantine. She plans on getting her shots after coming to Canada. 

"As an international student, I already pay a lot of money," she said. "This is an additional expense."

Many universities are offering accommodations for quarantine.

Welsh said students will be offered transportation from the airport, daily health check-in calls and other supports.

Shahabuddin's next concern is falling sick while travelling, along with the medical expenses that would follow. 

They are the same worries the Canadian Federation of Students has heard from others, said Bipin Kumar, the international student representative for the organization.

"At least one of the things we are hearing is whether the additional health insurance offered by private companies would cover students, in case they get sick due to travel," he said.

"A lot of the travel would happen before they come to Canada, and usually the insurance is only after they enrol from 1st of September."

The federation is working with universities and the provincial governments to get more details, he said.

Ali Hassan, who has been accepted to York University in Toronto, said the visa process is moving slowly and he may not have it in time to travel, so he's glad the university is offering online classes.

"But I'm a little bit worried," he said, adding he checks his email several times a day for his approval. 

"I'm hopeful," Hassan added. "I'm hopeful I can come to Canada this fall."

A number of universities will be offering a blend of online and in-person classes this semester as students navigate their way through hurdles caused by the pandemic. 

Matthew Ramsey, a spokesman at the University of British Columbia, said students will have the option of online courses if they can't make it to Canada this semester. 

"We will be working with them on a case-by-case basis ensuring that they are able to access their courses, whether that's online or in person."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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