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  • Tracy Sherlock

B.C. schools brace for possible dwindling of international students due to covid-19

Vancouver and other B.C. school districts may lose out on international students this fall, due to the covid-19 pandemic.

The Vancouver School Board and other schools districts across the province are starting to prepare for fewer international students to show up this fall, after covid-19 has closed international borders.

This year, there were 1,809 international students in Vancouver K to 12 schools. Many of them are still here. But due to concerns about the pandemic, VSB is projecting just 1,170 international students for the 2020-21 school year.

That 35-per-cent reduction means a $3.27 million hit to the VSB budget, increasing the projected deficit to $8.34 million. VSB has a budget surplus from this and previous years of $11.8 million, which will leave $3.38 million for the future, said VSB secretary-treasurer David Green.

The possible reduction in international students was estimated a few weeks ago to mean about 20 to 30 teachers would be “surplussed,” said Katharine Shipley, president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers' Association.

The term “surplussed” is different from being laid off. The teachers would still have guaranteed work and a contract with VSB, but they would likely not be at the same school and would likely work as a teacher on call, Shipley said.

Shipley said she suspects secondary schools on Vancouver's west side have the highest numbers of international students, with the exception of Byng, which is full with local students.

VSB is allocating $1 million in its budget for next year to deal with added expenses related to covid-19. The money could be used for cleaning supplies, additional cleaning staff, additional technology or to support staff and student mental health, Green said during an online district finance meeting.

“This is a period of high anxiety,” Green said. “You’ve probably heard on the news people are saying their mental health has been impacted and we have to be cognizant of that.”

There are many risks to the budget, including if even fewer than expected international students arrive, if there is a significant shift to online learning or if government places extra conditions on districts due to covid-19.

"Budgeting in the world of a pandemic is challenging to say the least,” Green said in a memo to school trustees.

The pandemic is expected to save VSB some money too – about $2.5 million from things like reduced benefit costs, Green said.

“People cannot go to physical therapy, they cannot go to massage therapy, they can’t take advantage of some of those benefits that we have,” Green said.

Vancouver isn’t alone in depending on the tuition from international students to keep their district afloat.

Coquitlam has already laid off nearly 200 teachers, the CBC reported, due to a drop in international students. West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby also have many international students, Shipley said.

Green told VSB trustees that every district he has spoken to is facing a deficit and will be using accumulated surpluses to balance their budgets.

“I think that as a district we really need to start looking to figure out how to place less of a reliance on that sort of program than we currently do,” Green said. “Having said that, that recognizes a very, very significant shift in the way that we currently operate, but it really also makes you aware of the (risks) involved in continuing to balance your budget with funding that is so precariously dependent on global events that we have no control over.”

The budget will be updated again before a final meeting on June 22 when trustees will vote whether or not to approve it.

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