School District 71 office

Outrage greets Island push for international students in the middle of a pandemic

Comox Valley school board says strict COVID-19 protocols in place for international student program

A Vancouver Island school district drive seeking billet families for international students in the midst of the pandemic has parents up in arms.

An email from School District 71 to Comox Valley parents, is offering financial compensation of up to $4,800 for families interested in hosting students from Germany set to arrive in the community for next term.

The package includes an option to host students for the duration of their 14-day quarantine at $750 per student. (See bottom of article for the entire email, which breaks down the payments.)

Karla Ullman received the email, and was shocked the government would be considering the continuation of an exchange program at this time.

“I am mad – it’s a slap in the face,” she said. “We are hearing from Bonnie Henry to flatten the curve and essential travel only. I’m sorry, but students from Germany have no business coming over here to learn. We have people here who can’t even go to church without getting fined. So why is the government thinking of their pocketbooks instead of our people?”

RELATED: International students, B.C. homestay families learn to live together during the pandemic

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There is a financial benefit to the program for the school district.

According to the district, the International Program collects $6,500/semester or $13,000/year from each student. These funds are directly invested back into Comox Valley schools in terms of staffing and resources. The district anticipates 33 students for the second semester to complement the 85 students already here.

“It is not essential for them to come here,” said Ullman. “Why are they putting money ahead of our safety? All they care about is money. This is a risk we really should not be taking right now.”

Numerous other parents voiced their displeasure on social media.

According to correspondence from the Ministry of Education, the guidelines were put in place prior to the beginning of the school year.

“Prior to the start of the current school year, the ministry required districts and independent schools to confirm, in writing, readiness to meet all required provincial and federal health and safety protocols to receive international students,” the ministry said in an email. “We also worked with provincial and federal ministries on safe international student arrival and quarantine processes and any arrivals would have to meet federal regulations.”

The school district addressed the fallout from the email at the Dec. 8 board committee meeting, held virtually.

Greg Kochanuk, district principal for International Students Program, said the timing of the email was unfortunate.

“Usually about four to six times a year, we will send out messages to all Comox Valley families, seeing if anyone is interested in becoming a homestay [family]. Last night (Dec. 7) we sent out the same message… really not great timing in terms of Bonnie Henry’s announcement that, kind of, Christmas was cancelled and there were certainly people on social media expressing their anxiety and anger,” he said.

“They equated that almost immediately with ‘what do you mean, we are having international students in the Comox Valley? We are not allowed to go and visit people, and yet we are inviting these people in.’”

Kochanuk explained that there was a change in the federal regulations surrounding international student programs.

“The borders have been closed for several months, but what we are seeing is that those borders are opening and the Canadian government is granting study permits and study visas to students that they weren’t previously doing,” he said. “Essentially, they are granting travel exemptions; they are saying that the students’ study experiences abroad are essential.”

Kochanuk said all safety protocols are being strictly adhered to, and the district consulted with health authorities to prepare a top-notch safety plan.

“We are following the guidelines laid down by the provincial health authority and Immigration Canada, so we are doing what 41 other international student programs across the province are doing right now. Following all the rules, making a robust safety plan… we did that in conjunction with Dr. Charmaine Enns (North Vancouver Island Medical Health Officer). She approved our plan and actually said that it exceeds the expectations laid out in the Quarantine Act.”

“The district has followed all of the regulations as set out by the Federal Quarantine Act as well as the B.C. provincial guidance and related Orders,” Enns told The Record. “We will continue to work with the school district to provide guidance and support, as required, to help ensure the safety of students and staff.”

Kochanuk invited anyone with questions or concerns to email him directly, at greg.kochanuk@sd71.bc.ca

“I respect the fact that people are upset about it. I am upset that I can’t see my mother and father during the Christmas holidays,” he added. “But I think a lot of people were transposing that anxiety and that anger.”

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terry.farrell@blackpress.ca
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