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Stranded: how a new travel rule almost blocked some U of T students from returning to Canada

Cancelled flights, expensive COVID-19 tests, newly required enrolment documents
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For almost an hour, Kashi Syal stood in line for the help desk at Heathrow Airport in London, UK, waiting to reschedule her flight for the third time in the span of a week. 

As a fourth-year U of T student specializing in English, Syal was trying to return to Canada for the beginning of winter semester, but she had been turned away from boarding her flight to Toronto at the airport’s check-in counter. She was then sent to a help desk manned by only two employees, as the line around her stretched for over 35 people.

Physical distancing measures were barely enforced as people clamoured to rebook the flights they had just been denied to board. Passengers clutching suitcases looked tense. A few were openly crying.

This was the scene on January 10 at Terminal 2 in Heathrow Airport, a hub for international flight departures and arrivals. Although the rest of the once lively airport was a ghost town, the check-in area became ground zero for chaos and disarray as some passengers loudly fought with airline employees to board their flight. 

“Everyone there is highly strung,” Syal said. “The people working seem anxious. Everyone is masked, and there’s just a massive sense of agitation everywhere.” 

On December 30, the Canadian government had announced a new travel restriction. Starting January 7, all international airline passengers on Canada-bound flights who are at least five years old must test negative for COVID-19 using a molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within 72 hours prior to takeoff. 

A January 6 update to the rule allowed travellers to present results from Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) tests as well. It also extended the testing time window to 96 hours before departure from the Caribbean and South America, given the difficulties of accessing testing in those regions.  

Officials have described Canada’s newest travel measure as another way to combat non-essential international travel as COVID-19 cases continue climbing in the country. But critics of this recent testing requirement say that the Canadian government’s implementation of the new rule is uneven and unclear at best, and classist at worst. 

For some international students like Syal, returning to U of T in time for the new semester was an urgent priority because their Toronto apartments and rooms were sitting empty and time zone differences for classes have taken a toll on their mental health. But the new testing rule has led to mounting confusion, rising costs, and cancelled flights, creating unprecedented and towering barriers for international students trying to return to U of T. 

According to Isabella Sell, a fourth-year U of T student from London specializing in English, the uncertainty surrounding her flight left her feeling stressed and isolated. “Mentally, it’s just so exhausting… I just wanted either a government or a person or someone on the end of a phone to tell me… what exactly I needed to do,” Sell said. “No one knew anything.” 

The staggering costs of testing

Accessing a PCR or LAMP COVID-19 test is now an additional cost that passengers must bear to board a flight to Canada.

January 10 wasn’t Syal’s first attempt to return to Canada: by then, she’d already rescheduled two flights back to Toronto. After a new COVID-19 variant was found in London, the Canadian government banned all incoming flights from the UK until January 6, forcing Syal to reschedule her flight. When the new testing requirement was announced on December 30, Syal had to delay her flight again. 

Syal eventually obtained a National Health Service (NHS) COVID-19 test, but her result was rejected at check-in. The help desk employee told Syal that earlier that day that the Canadian government had told the airline that they would only accept private tests from UK passengers. 

The Canadian government has not released an official statement about NHS tests, but according to Sell, NHS test results do not provide all of the information that the Canadian government requires. The Travel Canada website mandates that COVID-19 test results must show the traveler’s name and date of birth, the name and address of the laboratory conducting the test, the date it was administered, the type of test, and the result. NHS test results do not specify the lab or the type of test administered, so private tests are the only option for passengers departing from the UK.

Meanwhile, the UK government’s website reads that those planning to leave the country cannot take NHS tests, but a traveller might not come across that information without intentionally looking for it. 

As a result of these communication gaps, many travellers may arrive at the airport unaware of the fine print of testing requirements. “I’ve not found one article that says NHS tests aren’t valid,” Syal said. “I can’t find that in writing anywhere. So how am I meant to know?” 

The rejection of NHS tests has significant implications, as these tests are free while private tests are usually paid for out of pocket. 

Syal had to reschedule her flight again and paid 99 pounds for a private test. “I think it’s incredibly classist that they’re making people pay for tests,” she said. “You don’t know the situation — you can’t assume that someone has money just because they’re flying abroad.” 

Sell faced a similar situation when she tried to fly from London to Toronto. Her original flight was cancelled due to the December 23 travel ban — which extended an ongoing ban — thrusting her into a state of uncertainty and stress. By the time her flight was rescheduled for January 11, she was still unsure about which tests the Canadian government would accept. 

“It was the lack of communication and lack of continuity between what the UK was saying and what Canada was saying,” Sell said. “I was left floundering in the middle.” 

Sell had to rush to find a private testing facility before her flight on January 11. She recalled that most clinics in London were booked up until February, forcing her to take the most expensive private test she found. It ended up costing her 275 pounds. 

“Private [COVID-19] tests are so expensive, and it’s so inaccessible to everyone after you’ve spent like hundreds of pounds on a flight,” Sell said. “It’s a crazy, crazy ask.”

Sell and Syal both understand why the new travel rule exists, but they believe it creates a punitive burden for students. “It’s great that they’re making travel such a headache, but… I think they should… give discretion to the people who have to,” Syal said. “I feel like I’m getting penalized for a commitment I made four years ago.”

Unclear requirements for international students

New developments to travel rules have also altered the experience of travelling on a student visa. Dani Linder, a fourth-year anthropology and political science student, flew out of Mexico on January 8. For Linder, the greatest challenge she faced when trying to board was not paying the cost of testing, but rather having the necessary documents to prove that she should be allowed into Canada as a student.  

According to Travel Canada’s website, international students entering Canada must have a valid study permit, be enrolled in a designated learning institute (DLI), and show proof that they can financially support themselves while in Canada. Since U of T is listed as a DLI, Linder did not expect any differences in documentation requirements when she reached the check-in counter. 

However, after checking her passport and student visa, the airline employee then asked if she was starting classes soon. When she told him that she was beginning classes on January 11, he told her that she could only board the flight with evidence that she was beginning university immediately.

“I showed him my schedule,” Linder said. “And he was like, ‘This isn’t enough… I need more proof, like with a date stamp.’ ”

After the airline employee rejected other enrolment documents, Linder was finally able to pull up an arbitrary email from a professor welcoming her to a course that would begin on January 12. Only then was she approved to fly.

Prior to the check-in process, Linder had not been informed about this new requirement. The official Canadian website does not explicitly state that, in order to board a flight, international students must prove that they are immediately beginning studies. U of T’s COVID-19 website simply makes a strong recommendation that students bring an updated enrolment letter. 

Although Linder believes that the recent testing and travel rule change is crucial to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, she found that there was an overall lack of communication. According to Linder, the last update about travelling that she directly received was in October, when U of T sent an email about study permits and the new DLI system. 

When The Varsity reached out to U of T for comment, a U of T spokesperson responded that the website was updated as soon as new information came out about international student entry requirements into Canada. In addition, the spokesperson wrote that students registered in the quarantine program are continuously updated with the latest government information. 

However, Linder felt that the newest travel development is significant enough to warrant more widespread, direct communication from the university to students.

“From U of T’s part, I really wished they’d been more present, at least during this time, because obviously [the university knows] that people are travelling. I wish [U of T would] send a new email,” she said. “It definitely would have been helpful.”

The emotional toll of travel barriers 

The consequences of not returning to U of T varies between students, but the overall takeaway is clear: for many, Toronto is home. 

In the weeks leading up to her flight, Sell agonized over her travel requirements. Even after getting her private test, she still felt on edge. 

“Even when I had the correct documents … I was just waiting for them to turn around and say, ‘You can’t come back,’ ” Sell said. 

She found that, although she was afraid of not being able to physically return to Canada, the agitation she felt when preparing for a flight with vague instructions from the Canadian and UK governments loomed over her entire travel experience. 

“The kind of toll that takes on you mentally was also a big aspect of it,” Sell said. “You know, the idea of just not being able to go back to somewhere that… is kind of my home and is also a place of comfort for me.”

Sell was able to board her flight and return to Toronto, but she had to mull over the consequences if she had not been able to. “Luckily, I mean, all my classes are online,” she said. “But there’s so many obstacles, including time difference.” 

Back in December, Sell had finished her fall semester in London. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST), so a class from 6:00–9:00 pm EST translated to 11:00 pm to 2:00 am in her time zone. On top of this, she didn’t have many of her textbooks with her and some materials were not published in the UK so she needed friends to access them for her.

“I didn’t have any of the resources that I normally have,” she said. “School would have been significantly harder.”

Syal found herself in a similar situation when considering the possibility of spending the winter semester in London as well. When she finished the fall term in London, her classes had ended at midnight. 

“It was awful — I was so tired all the time,” Syal said. She found that the sleep deprivation caused by the time zone difference caused her mental health to decline, which compelled her to do everything to make her flight. 

“I’m not willing to put my mental health at risk,” she said. “It’s not livable long term.”

Another concern Syal faced was the empty room she was paying for in Toronto. “I pay for my own rent,” she said. “I’m very aware that ‘x’ amount of money is leaving my account for a room that I’m not using.”

On the topic of her own rent, Syal added that if she hadn’t been able to return, she thought it would be unlikely that she could find a subletter on such short notice. “Thinking about not being able to get back… it was really stressful for me,” Sell said.

She still recalls the feeling when she finally landed in Pearson Airport in Toronto. “I remember I was just running through Pearson,” she said. It was roughly 1:30 am GMT for her, and after a long day of anxiously waiting in lines, she just wanted to go home.

When Sell arrived at her apartment, she immediately showered and went to give her roommate a hug. “I just started crying,” she said. “I felt exhausted; I felt stressed.” Being back in Toronto with her friends finally delivered her a sense of catharsis she had not felt for weeks.  

“It was pure relief,” she said. “I couldn’t quite believe I’d managed to get back.”

Disclosure: Kashi Syal served as The Varsity’s Volume 139 and 140 Arts & Culture Editor and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

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