Immigration

How COVID-19 backlogs are keeping a Saanich family from going to school

With Canada experiencing massive backlogs in immigration, newly arrived families across the province could be unable to obtain the documents needed to enrol their kids in school

By Tori Marlan
November 7, 2020
Immigration

How COVID-19 backlogs are keeping a Saanich family from going to school

With Canada experiencing massive backlogs in immigration, newly arrived families across the province could be unable to obtain the documents needed to enrol their kids in school

By Tori Marlan
Nov 7, 2020
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt
Immigration

How COVID-19 backlogs are keeping a Saanich family from going to school

With Canada experiencing massive backlogs in immigration, newly arrived families across the province could be unable to obtain the documents needed to enrol their kids in school

By Tori Marlan
November 7, 2020
How COVID-19 backlogs are keeping a Saanich family from going to school
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

Clara, 14, spends hours on her phone every day scrolling through TikTok. Sometimes she goes outside and jumps on a trampoline. Her brothers, 10 and 6, take turns binge-watching shows on Netflix. Nobody the siblings knew had a yard or lived in a house in their densely packed neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, where they'd shared a three-bedroom apartment with their parents before moving to Canada. Now, in Saanich, Clara says she feels fortunate for what she considers a step up in their living situation. 

But what she and her brothers no longer have is school; thanks to unprecedented delays with Canadian immigration processing due to COVID-19, they have been unable to obtain the documents they need to enrol in their local public schools. Their mother, Elizabeth,* says the children often ask her when they’ll be able to go: “I say, ‘I don’t know, I really don’t know.’” 

Elizabeth realized before she moved her family to Vancouver Island that her children’s education would be interrupted. But she thought the interruption would be brief.

The family set their sights on Canada after Elizabeth was accepted into a business administration program at UVic and obtained electronic travel authorization to enter the country. The acceptance to UVic was contingent upon Elizabeth’s successful completion of an English-language course, so shortly after arriving in January, she enrolled in an approved 12-week “pathway program” at Global Village English Centres. After passing the program, she submitted an application for a study permit to Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), which would have given her family temporary resident status and allowed her to enrol her children in school.

But the timing was terrible. It was May, and the pandemic had dramatically slowed responsiveness at IRCC. Last year, IRCC processed 93% of new study permits within 60 days. Elizabeth’s application has been pending for six months. 

In that time, she’s twice had to defer enrolling in her UVic program. While the family’s “implied status” has allowed them to remain in the country legally, the IRCC backlog has hamstrung their ability to participate in their new community: Neither Elizabeth nor her husband are allowed to work, and their children’s education is indefinitely on hold. 

BC’s Ministry of Education allocates funding to school districts based in part on the number of enrolled pupils, but districts can request provincial funding only for students who meet certain criteria. Those eligible for funding include both youth whose guardians hold work or study permits and those whose guardians are “ordinarily resident,” a term that’s left undefined in the School Act and that each public school board is left to interpret on their own. 

Figuring out who is and who isn’t an eligible student is a bit of a gray area. The province suggests indicators to gauge whether a student is "ordinarily resident" —such as a parent's provincial driver’s licence or proof of local employment—but the term is otherwise left ambiguous.

Not long before the schools reopened in June, Elizabeth attempted to enrol her children in their respective catchment schools, both located in school district 61. But without a study permit that would guarantee her children a publicly funded education, Elizabeth was turned away. “At Rogers [Elementary], they were really nice,” she says. “It’s an elderly lady that is on the front desk. She's like, ‘I see your suffering, but I cannot do anything.’”

Elizabeth was instead directed to the district’s international program, a fee-based study abroad program for foreign students. She says the combined annual tuition for her three children — $45,000 — foreclosed that possibility.

The Capital Daily newsletter is a summary of all the news and events happening in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Subscribe Today

There’s no legal reason a school district can’t register students whose immigration status is in limbo or, even, unknown or irregular. By doing so, however, it risks forgoing the per-student funding it receives from the province  (in SD 61’s case, it’s currently $10,813 per pupil). 

“A district can cover a few extra kids,” says Julia MacRae, the first vice president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association, “but I don’t think they should have to. It’s the duty of the state to provide education.”  

MacRae is a founding member of the School for All campaign, which since 2015 has advocated for children’s universal access to public education in BC. As an activist who speaks Spanish, MacRae says she sometimes hears “through the grapevine” about Surrey schools refusing to register Latin American children whose guardians haven’t been able to produce the requested enrollment documents. In the last year, she says, she has personally helped four children enrol by leaning on her connections to senior administrators in the district — in each case it’s not known whether the district absorbed the cost of the student or if it was ultimately able to provide sufficient evidence to the province of ordinary residence. While the administrators seemed happy to reverse the schools’ decisions and have assured MacRae that the district will welcome anyone she brings to them, she says compassion is no substitute for policy: “What about the kids who don’t have a tangential relationship to me?” 

MacRae would like to see changes on both the district and provincial levels — where schools no longer ask prospective students for citizenship status and where the province creates a pathway for districts to claim funding for students with irregular immigration status. Children are “at risk of being unsupervised while their parents are working,” she says. 

While some public school districts have made it publicly known that they will register children without proper documents on a case-by-case basis, only one district in BC — New Westminster— has formally adopted a sanctuary schools policy that guarantees access to free education for children regardless of their immigration status. Before that policy went into effect in 2017, school board members had heard that guardians without legal status sometimes wouldn’t even attempt to enrol their children out of fear they’d be reported to federal authorities. “Our policy allows for residents to access school without fear that their personal information will be shared,” Superintendent Karim Hachlaf said in an email to Capital Daily.  

In Brazil, Elizabeth’s daughter was taking advanced math classes. Her ten-year-old son loved reading, something he doesn’t do much of anymore. If IRCC doesn’t approve Elizabeth’s study permit before January, her children will have missed a year of school. 

Elizabeth believes they will be able to overcome any academic setback that’s caused by their long absence from the classroom. What bothers her most right now is that they’re missing out on the social aspects of school and the benefits of immersing themselves in the language and culture of their new home. 

Elizabeth says her family would like to settle permanently in Canada. Sometimes she wonders what she would have done if she’d known in advance that by moving to Vancouver Island her kids would be turned away from school. Would she still have put the move in motion? “I do not regret it,” she says. “But maybe I would not have had the courage to come.” 

*Elizabeth has asked that her family be referred to with pseudonyms, fearing that speaking to the media might negatively impact her application with IRCC. 

tori@capitaldaily.ca