As the Canadian government urges travellers to come home, students abroad are left to make their own decision
When Sydney Bartos went through border control in Copenhagen early Monday morning, a customs officer asked if she was a student. After saying yes, the officer asked, “Jumping from the sinking ship?” to which she says she couldn’t help but respond: “Yes, but probably just to another sinking ship.”
The officer then told Bartos he thought this would be the last flight to Canada from Denmark until June. “There was definitely something harrowing in hearing that,” said Bartos.
Bartos, a third-year Ryerson journalism student, was studying abroad at the Danish School of Media and Journalism for the semester in Aarhus, Denmark. The country closed all schools and universities as a precautionary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11.
She wasn’t planning on coming home until she received an urgent email from Ryerson on Sunday evening, urging students to come home and contact Ryerson International with their travel plans.
At 2 a.m. Monday morning, Bartos booked a flight from Copenhagen to Toronto (and then onwards to Vancouver, her hometown), which was the last flight departing from Denmark to Canada for at least a month.
In a mere few hours, Bartos packed up her belongings, figured out what to do with her keys to her dorm and said goodbye to the friends she’d met while abroad. “Everything happened so fast that it honestly still hasn’t even registered,” she said.
Bartos returned home to Canada late March 17 and following the advice of the government, is now in isolation for 14 days at home in Vancouver.
As the numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 continue to grow in Canada and around the world, government officials have taken serious precautions in an attempt to slow the spread.
COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11. The virus, which began in China, has now infected more than 241,667 people around the world, with over 736 confirmed cases in Canada as of March 19.
The Canadian government urged travellers abroad to come home while it is still possible to do so. This, of course, includes Ryerson students abroad.
What is Ryerson doing to ensure it’s students’ safety?
On March 13, Ryerson cancelled all in-person classes and moved strictly to online. On Tuesday it was announced that the university would be closing most of its buildings, including residence, and moving to an essential services only model on campus.
Ryerson first sent out a COVID-19 advisory on March 2, describing the outbreak and what Toronto Public Health is advising.
An additional COVID-19 update was sent out on the morning of March 11. In the updated advisory, the university states it has “suspended all university-sanctioned travel to China, Iran, Northern Italy and to the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea, until further notice.”
Sara Berman, interim director, Ryerson International told the Ryersonian in an email that, “things are rapidly changing and right now we are all concentrating on supporting our students who are abroad or having to change their plans for the semester in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The page also urges students and community members abroad, on behalf of Ryerson University, to return immediately.
“Please note that if you would like to return home, but there are financial or logistical challenges that prohibit you from finalizing arrangements, we will support you.”
Kayla Empey, a third year journalism student currently studying in Utrecht, the Netherlands, is less than satisfied with her communication with Ryerson International. Empey said that apart from the emails addressed to all exchange students, she has never received a personal email from Ryerson International concerning her particular situation.
“I understand that Ryerson International is dealing with a lot of students currently, but it does not take long to shoot me a quick email,” she said. “I believe it is their job to ensure all their students are in a good state of mind during all of this, which they surely failed to do.”
Empey said that after Ryerson asked it’s students abroad to return home immediately, she sent them an email asking if she still had the option to stay despite their recommendation. “I never received a reply,” she said. “The way I found out that it is still my personal choice is when FCAD International emailed me asking what my travel plans were and to let them know if I decide to stay.”
The Ryersonian inquired about these communications issues with Ryerson International, to which Berman responded by saying over the last two weeks Ryerson International has been working around the clock to ensure the safety and well-being of all students. “It is our top priority to ensure each student in our care has the information they need at this critical time,” she said.
“As part of these efforts, we have sent 18 mass emails to all of our students abroad with the pertinent information and updates they require,” said Berman. “We are monitoring all email addresses, checking our voice message system regularly and responding to each inquiry within hours of receiving it.”
If students have further questions, Berman invites students with any questions to email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I am very happy with my communication with FCAD, as they always reply to their emails right away and respect my decisions,” said Empey.
Empey has no plans of flying home from her exchange. With classes being moved to online, Empey said she is not currently afraid of catching the virus.
The Netherlands are currently at more than 2,460 positive cases of the virus as of March 19, with numbers rising daily.
While Bartos said she believes Ryerson has a responsibility to keep students informed on urgent updates or advisories, she says ultimately the decision to go abroad is a students’ choice. “Inevitably [this] comes with certain risks that Ryerson is not responsible for.”
“A pandemic, although scary, is not something Ryerson could have foreseen.”
Bartos said that Ryerson is offering compensation for booked flights. She will likely apply for the compensation in the upcoming days.
Ryerson also offered to book flights for students if they were unable to, Bartos said. By Sunday, as the situation was escalating and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was calling for everyone abroad to come home, “Ryerson was doing whatever they could to make sure we were able to get back,” said Bartos.
Bartos described her trip home as “anxiety-inducing”.
“Being surrounded by people in masks and seeing so many cancelled flights on the screens at the airport — the overall atmosphere everywhere just felt anxious. Everyone around me at the gate seemed anxious, too,” said Bartos.
For more information regarding Ryerson’s advice for safety abroad, click here.