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International students have been told not to make travel plans to Canada until after Ottawa’s border restrictions are lifted.

In the latest update of its program guidelines, the federal immigration department said Tuesday that international students will not be allowed to enter Canada if they have received a student visa after the country’s border lockdown on March 18.

Even those who have a valid study permit from that date or earlier will be denied entry unless they can prove their travel is “non-discretionary or non-optional.”

“While many Canadian college and university campus locations are closed, classes are generally continuing online. Travel will be deemed discretionary or non-discretionary depending on individual circumstances,” said the advisory.

In 2019, more than 650,000 international students studied in Canada at the post-secondary level. The sector contributed more than $21 billion to the Canadian economy through students’ spending and tuition fees, which are two to three times higher than their domestic peers. The largest cohort of the students usually arrives in the fall.

To ensure Canada remains a competitive destination of choice for international education during the pandemic, the federal government is allowing students to count the time spent pursuing their studies online abroad toward their eligibility for a post-graduation work permit.

If they have submitted a study permit application and if at least half of their program is completed in Canada when the border reopens, they will be eligible for the work permit, which many international students count on as an ultimate pathway for permanent residence.

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on international students and the Canadian institutions and communities that host them. This is why we have implemented a series of measures to support them,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said earlier.

“We value the contribution of young people seeking a high-quality education in Canada, and we’re making every effort to minimize how current challenges affect their plans and dreams for the future.”

Despite the special COVID-19 measures, international students have complained that schools still require the same hefty tuition fees for online programs, which present other challenges regarding time-zone differences. Some students may have to stay up for their class in the wee hours from their home countries.

Sarom Rho, a migrant student worker organizer, said Ottawa has been tone-deaf to the needs of international students, who have been asking for a tuition freeze and work permit extension, among other things that could help them through the pandemic.

“International students are disappointed with these announcements,” said Rho of Migrant Students United. “The government’s response is geared towards maintaining international enrolment and fees as a source of revenue to keep schools operating. It’s disavowing its responsibility to the quality of education for these students.”

According to the immigration department’s updated guidelines, border agents have the final say in admitting arriving students.

Students must prove their presence in Canada is necessary for their continued participation in their programs, such as in labs and workshops, or prove that pursuing online studies is not an option for their school or program or not possible from their home country, for example, due to internet restrictions or bandwidth limitation.

Like all travelers, international students who enter Canada must undergo the necessary health checks and self-quarantine for 14 days upon the arrival.

Some universities and colleges have issued support letters to incoming international students advising them to take extra precautions before traveling to Canada because students are responsible for the costs of returning to their home countries.

At the University of Saskatchewan, for example, students are recommended to provide border agents support letters from the administration saying that “your studies cannot be completed online and you are expected to start on-site.”

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