Facing financial ruin due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada's language schools have proposed an ambitious plan to bring 40,000 foreign students to Canada over the next few months to learn English and French.
The Study Safe Corridor initiative, which is awaiting approval from the federal government, would see Air Canada provide charter flights to bring COVID-screened students from countries such as Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Brazil.
A number of Canadian hotels have agreed to offer "full-service quarantine packages" for the students during their 14-day isolation period. A health insurance partner is involved in the plan as well.
The language students — who range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s and 40s — would be required to sign contracts to guarantee compliance with health regulations, which include financial penalties if rules are broken.
"We needed to come up with something that would be a game changer," said Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada, which represents 200 schools across the country.
"We believe that if sports teams are allowed to function in this way, then international education should be allowed as well."
The federal government gave the National Hockey League permission to resume its season and hold the Stanley Cup playoffs in Canada, allowing players from 18 teams from the U.S. to enter the country. The teams have agreed to follow strict safety protocols while playing in Toronto and Edmonton.
Economy would benefit, group says
Languages Canada and its members have asked the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for the same consideration.
"We're not looking at professional players being paid millions; we're looking at people who are building their lives and looking toward the future," Peralta said. "We know that borders cannot simply reopen; that's unthinkable at this time. But we do know that life needs to continue."
His organization says the Study Safe Corridor would inject $533 million of export revenue into the Canadian economy by March 2021, benefiting not only the schools, but also the airline and hotel sectors, homestay programs, and the tourism and hospitality industry. As well, 9,000 education jobs are at stake.
A Languages Canada member survey showed that as many as 75 per cent of schools will be out of business by the end of the year if they're not allowed to reopen. Some have already closed permanently.
Initiative raises health concerns
Emrah Oyman, executive director of operations at Toronto's Mentora Language Academy, said online classes aren't a suitable replacement.
"The big selling feature is the cultural component," he said. "If you take away the face to face, you may as well just go on to YouTube."
Oyman and his colleagues are confident that the safety measures of the Study Safe Corridor will minimize health risks. "This plan is bulletproof," he said. "It's very robust."
But some are concerned about the health risks of bringing so many foreign nationals to Canada.
Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious and tropical disease specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto and works part-time at a COVID-19 assessment centre, said she is opposed to the initiative.
"The virus is surging around the world," she said. "People are dying of this. A lot of people have sacrificed a lot to keep us safe. Why would we take the risk of people coming from all around the world into Canada?"
Part of Banerji's work during the pandemic has been to speak with people who have tested negative for the virus but are still exhibiting symptoms.
She said she's not reassured that students would be tested before being allowed to fly. "We have a high degree of false negatives," she said.
In her view, language studies are not essential during a global pandemic. "These students have the rest of their lives to learn a language. It just doesn't make sense to me."
As for the fate of the schools? "Now is not the time to do this," Banerji said. "Maybe they can reopen next year."
Students are keen to come
Pedro Hammer of Brazil said he is eager to return to Canada to continue his English-language classes and believes the Study Safe Corridor is a good approach.
"Especially in Brazil, we are dealing with a pretty hard situation in regard to the coronavirus, and I think the safety measures are a must," he said via a WhatsApp call from his hometown in the southern city of Curitiba.
The 18-year-old was a student at Mentora Language Academy until February, when his visa expired. Then the coronavirus hit, and he's been unable to renew it to return.
He said it's his "dream" to get back to Canada.
"At the moment I arrived in Toronto, I knew it was the place for me," Hammer said. "I fell in love with the city. It was a life-changing experience."
Hammer is taking a business management course in Brazil but said his dream is to eventually emigrate. "My main goal is to go to Canada, to Toronto, to grow a family there and maybe grow a business as well."
Many students are keen to resume studies, said Mentora's Oyman.
"Our day-to-day operations are heavily related to education agents when it comes to new students, and they're all across the world," he said.
"They're giving us market intelligence; they're telling us the students' concerns. And they are absolutely receptive to the idea of the Study Safe Corridor."
Gonzalo Peralta of Languages Canada said many foreign students opt to stay in Canada and pursue higher education. It's another economic benefit of language schools, he said, but added that there's more than money at stake.
"It's also about promoting our identity to the world and our Canadian values. It's very, very important in that regard."
Peralta said his organization hopes to receive the go-ahead from the government soon.
"Now is the biggest time for enrolment, over the summertime. And then in September, those are the two big intakes. We have missed the summer. So this is basically the equivalent of Christmas to the retail business."
The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, as well as the office of Minister Marco Mendicino, did not respond to emails sent by CBC News asking for comment.