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International education in New West rebuilding from COVID-19 impacts

New Westminster school district has seen fewer students from Asia but more from Europe and Latin America as it pivots in the face of the pandemic
Globe and school concept
The New Westminster school district's international education program is returning to full strength after being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Westminster’s international education program is ramping up again after being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karen Klein, director of School District 40’s international education program, gave a program update to school trustees at their Nov. 9 education committee meeting.

“This year, like everybody, we had our ups and our downs, and we had a lot of twists and turns along the way. We all thought COVID was limited to 2020, but no, 2021 wanted a bit of the action too,” Klein said. “It’s an understatement to say that the inbound international movement had its challenge.”

Klein noted the pandemic has hit the program in multiple ways – in the form of international travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and vaccine requirements.

Closer to home, she said, the pandemic has also reduced the availability of homestay families. Some, she noted, have been impacted by working from home, as spare bedrooms that would have otherwise been available for homestay students have been converted into home offices.

Others are reluctant to take in students with the added level of exposure that comes along with having an extra teen in the house: exposures at school; riding transit; social gatherings with other people that are largely out of the homestay family’s control.

“There’s still a lot of fear out there,” Klein said.

But she said that, despite all of that, the program still had a “really good year.”

The program wound up the 2019/20 school year in June 2020 with just 33 returning students.

But Klein said the team has been able to build enrolment back up again. Right now, the international program has a headcount of 188 students, for a full-time equivalent enrolment of about 140.

International enrolment has gone down, as planned

Klein reminded trustees that, while enrolment in the program peaked in 2016 – surpassing 350 full-time equivalent students in both the 2015/16 and 2016/17 school years – it has been declining since in a planned reduction.

The district opted to slowly reduce the number of international students in the program as it prepared to move in to the new New Westminster Secondary School, over concerns about capacity issues in the new building. Students moved in to the new NWSS in January 2021.

“Now the larger picture is clearer, and we do have room to increase enrolment,” Klein said.

One of the factors that has changed substantially over the past couple of years is where the students are coming from.

Klein noted that, since the international program began in 1986, most of the participating students have come from Asia: Japan, Korea, China and, increasingly, Vietnam.

That has since changed – largely due to COVID.

In the 2018/19 school year, 51% of the program’s international students came from China, with another 16% from Korea, 8% from Japan and 8% from Vietnam. Just 8% came from Europe and 7% from Latin America.

By contrast, as of September 2021, 40% of students came from Europe and 12% from Latin America, with 17% from China, 11% from Japan, and 8% each from Korea and Vietnam.

“We really had to pivot this last year to focus on some other markets,” Klein said.

Summer programs, cultural camps eyed for future growth

But Klein said Europe and Latin America are not sustainable markets for the long term, and the program will be keeping an eye on global political and economic developments as it develops its plans for future years.

She said the program will likely move away from relying primarily on the full-time high school students and focus more of its efforts on initiatives such as its summer and spring break programs, cultural camps for English language learners and, potentially, outbound travel and reciprocal exchanges in the future.

Klein told trustees the district benefits from having the trust of the more than 200 partner agencies it works with in 25 countries.

“Despite the challenges that we had over this year, the future really does look good,” she said.

“Our students really want this experience. They only graduate once, and parents want their children to have this opportunity for their futures, and this really does bode well for our program.”

The international education program has long been a moneymaker for the school district.

In 2019/20, it brought in $3.7 million in offshore tuition fees, though that number was adjusted down to a budgeted $1.28 million in 2020/21 after COVID-19 struck.

In the past, revenue from international education has helped the district climb out of the red, from an accumulated deficit of $4.1 million in 2012/13 to an accumulated surplus as high as $5.6 million in 2017/18.

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