COVID-19 Developments and Legal Updates
Ongoing flexibility for international students due to COVID-19
Educational institutions and their students continue to face challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and international students are particularly impacted due to travel restrictions and study permit application processing delays. In our Spring 2020 issue, we discussed some of the measures the Government of Canada introduced to provide flexibility for current and prospective international students during these difficult and uncertain times. The government has since introduced additional measures to provide ongoing support:
1.Two-stage assessment process:
A new temporary two-stage assessment process for study permit applicants was introduced. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (“IRCC”) would notify applicants once they had passed stage one of this process. This was beneficial for applicants who were facing delays in providing biometrics, attending a medical examination, or providing a police certificate (where required), since stage one could be passed before these requirements were met.
This measure applied to initial study permit applications, but not to in-Canada study permit extensions. Additionally, only applicants who submitted their new study permit
application electronically before September 15, 2020, and whose program of study began in fall 2020 or earlier, were eligible for this two-stage assessment process.
There was no guarantee the study permit application would be approved simply because stage one was passed; however, this measure assisted international students who were unable to provide all of the required documents or information needed to finalize the assessment of their study permit application.
While the September 15, 2020 deadline is now passed, anyone who still has a study permit application in processing from before this date who otherwise meets the eligibility requirements will continue to benefit from this measure.
2. Greater PGWP eligibility flexibility: In our Spring 2020 issue, we discussed new measures introduced by IRCC to preserve students’ eligibility for Post-Graduation Work Permits (“PGWPs”) despite their in-class courses being moved online as a result of the pandemic. As a refresher, students can apply for a PGWP once they have graduated from certain Canadian educational institutions, but the assumption is that they would have completed their studies in Canada.
Due to travel restrictions and application processing delays, many international students will be unable to travel to Canada during this time, and instead will be looking to begin their Canadian study program online from their home country. Now, students who enrolled in a program that is 8 to 12 months in duration and that started between May and September 2020 can complete their entire program online from abroad, and still be eligible for a PGWP on graduation. Time spent studying outside of Canada after April 30, 2021 will however be deducted from the length of the PGWP.
For those taking a program that is 12 months or longer, or those in a program that is 8 to 12 months in duration but that started before May 2020, IRCC is now allowing these students to study online from their home country until April 30, 2021 without having time deducted from the length of their future PGWP, as long as 50% of their program of study is eventually completed in Canada. In general, PGWPs are usually valid for the same length as the study permit, up to a maximum of three years.
Finally, students who enrolled in a program with a start date between May and September 2020 and study online up to April 30, 2021 may be able to combine the length of their programs of study (if they graduated from more than one eligible program of study) when they apply for their PGWP on graduation, so long as 50% of their total studies (i.e. of the combined programs) were completed in Canada.
Where students will begin their program online from their home country due to travel restrictions and public health guidelines, they must have submitted a study permit application before they started their program of study in the spring, summer, or fall 2020 semester, or the January 2021 semester, and must eventually be approved for their study permit in order to qualify for the above measures.
3. In-Canada biometrics exemptions: Biometrics (i.e. fingerprinting and photographs) are generally a requirement of study permit applications. During the pandemic, Service Canada closed its biometrics collection centres, which caused delays in the processing of study permits and other applications. Biometrics collection services in Canada remain largely unavailable at this time. However, in recognition of the ensuing disruption, IRCC put a temporary public policy in place that exempts temporary residence applicants in Canada from biometrics requirements.
This policy includes initial in-Canada study permit applications (where the applicant is eligible to apply for a first-time study permit in the country), as well as in-Canada study permit extensions. The policy applies to new applications and those already in processing at the time the policy was introduced, and it will allow IRCC to finalize processing of study permit applications more expediently going forward. The policy will remain in effect until it is revoked by the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
4. Restoration period extension: Normally study permit holders in Canada have 90 days after their temporary residence status (i.e. study permit) expires to apply to IRCC to “restore” their status as a student. As the pandemic has impacted the ability of temporary residents, including international students, to provide complete applications to IRCC and their ability to find flights to their home country, IRCC has temporarily extended the restoration period. Now, former students whose status expired on January 31, 2020 or later and who remained in Canada can apply to restore their status until December 31, 2020. They will of course still be required to meet the requirements of the study permit application.
It is possible some of these measures may be further extended or revised as the government continues to monitor the impacts of COVID-19.
Conversely, the government has also introduced additional requirements for international students looking to come to Canada. Specifically, international students now must show they are coming to attend a Designated Learning Institution (“DLI”) that has a COVID-19 readiness plan approved by the relevant province or territory. DLIs with an approved readiness plan are listed on IRCC’s website and will be updated periodically as readiness plans are approved. Similarly, students must be travelling for a non-optional, non-discretionary purpose, must undergo the necessary health checks, and must follow quarantine requirements upon arrival to Canada.
Our immigration law team would be pleased to provide up-to-date advice on COVID-19 issues impacting educational institutions and international students alike.