Alexandra Sereda (left) is an Austrian student in Nelson. She’s stuck it out with her homestay parent Marion Hunter through the lockdown. Photo: Tyler Harper

International students, Kootenay homestay families learn to live together during the pandemic

The experience hasn’t been exactly what they signed up for

Alexandra Sereda travelled halfway around the world just to stay put.

The 16-year-old Austrian arrived in Nelson in January for a semester as an international student. She wanted to ski, and her homestay family had plans to take Sereda to Vancouver Island as well as south to the Oregon coast.

Instead, Sereda has spent her days exploring Nelson and waiting out a global pandemic that has provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience, albeit not the one she or her parents thought she’d have.

“They wanted me to go back, but I really wanted to stay because it’s also an experience,” says Sereda. “It’s different.”

It sure is.

When B.C. announced a public health emergency on March 17 as COVID-19 cases began to spike, Sereda and other international students were faced with a choice: stay or go.

Some left. School District 8, which oversees schools in Nelson, Creston, Kaslo, Meadow Creek, Salmo, Crawford Bay, and the Slocan Valley, had 74 international students visiting for either part of or the entire academic year.

When spring break began on March 16, 12 students returned to their home countries while 48 remained, according to Jann Schmidt, district principal of international education. As of June 1, 32 students were still in Canada.

Sereda is one of those 32, in part because she told her parents she felt safe in B.C. Austria has suffered 17,285 confirmed cases and 690 deaths of COVID-19 as of Monday, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Staying in Canada, she says, made sense.

“It’s awesome experience and it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t want to go home.”

Retired principal Marion Hunter is one of Sereda’s homestay parents. Hunter said she and her husband Ken have done their best to keep the situation fun by taking Sereda biking, teaching her how to golf and playing crib.

They’ve also managed to inadvertently bring some Canadian nature to Sereda, who has seen five bears in person including one who visited her bedroom window.

“She’s been unbelievably great to have here,” says Hunter. “I mean, my granddaughter thinks that she’s going to kidnap her and make her stay with us and never let her go because she just loves her.”

Angel Stuyt and her family has hosted international students for the last five years. Their latest is Nacho Ignacio, who is visiting from Spain. L-R: Ella Gotzy, Alex Gotzy, Stuyt, Ignacio. Front: Lance Gotzy. Photo submitted

But some homestay families also debated whether their student should go home.

Angel Stuyt had two students living with her. One from Germany returned home in May, while another from Spain has stayed in Nelson.

Stuyt, who has two children of her own, has been hosting students for five years. The situation in Spain, where 28,323 people have died due to COVID-19, settled the issue for her.

“My maternal instinct was maybe these kids should be with their families,” she says. “Because who knows how long this is going to take, maybe they should go home, but I didn’t voice that to them.

“But that dissipated really quickly when we saw what was happening in Europe.”

Most international students visiting School District 8 come from Europe. Each of the 60 districts in B.C. do their own recruiting, and there are financial reasons to do so.

In 2019 B.C. hosted 144,675 students, or 23 per cent of all visiting students in Canada, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. B.C. colleges and universities earned over $340 million from international student tuitions for the 2018-19 school year.

A report released by the federal government in April 2019 said international students at all levels of schools made a $15.5 billion impact on the economy in 2016.

The Ministry of Education doesn’t provide funding to districts for international students, who at SD8 pay $13,000 per year in tuition or $6,500 for one semester plus $850 per month to their homestay family.

That tuition is more than what a B.C. student brings in from the ministry, which doles out $7,500 per full-time enrolled student. Secretary-treasurer Michael McLelland says that total is actually over $10,000 when accounting for additional funding that can include resources for special needs students or to account for the district being spread out over a large area.

If the district doesn’t need to pay for additional teachers and classrooms, there’s less overhead associated with the international students and more money for public schools.

Schmidt said recruitment is already underway for the fall semester when she hopes to have 50 students travel to the district, and that a plan to quarantine students has been approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The challenge she faces is in flight availability, both in sending students home as well as eventually bringing them to the Kootenays. The district works with agents abroad to manage travel logistics, while parents are responsible for setting flights up.

But finding those flights, even within Canada, has become a problem.

“There have also been times where we think airports are going to be opened by a certain date. So flights are [booked] and then the airport closure has been extended,” says Schmidt.

“So families will then get a notice stating that flight is not going to work because the airport isn’t open at that time. And we have to start the process again.”

Lena Feldhusen (centre right) bunkered down with her homestay family near Taghum while going to school in Nelson. L-R: Blake Markin-Hellekson, Joanna Markin, Feldhusen, and Julia Markin-Hellekson. Photo: Tyler Harper

Joanna Markin is one homestay parent about to send a student home with plans to have another visit in the fall.

Four years ago Markin’s daughter Julia asked her parents to host an international student. A Russian student arrived and made an impression on Markin, who has Russian heritage.

“It was fun to be able to speak the language a little bit because I don’t speak it, but more to understand the things that she was saying,” says Markin. “So that encouraged us to do it more.”

The family is currently hosting Lena Feldhusen, 16, who came to Nelson last August from Berlin. Feldhusen had the opportunity to return home, but like Sereda opted to stay in Canada. Her parents continued to work, so Feldhusen saw little point in flying back early.

“It’s safer here because of the situation,” she says. “I’ve got Julia here, so I decided it’s better to stay here.”

Markin describes Feldhusen as a “godsend.” With her parents and brothers working, Julia would have been home alone since March. Instead she spent the lockdown with a friend.

But soon Feldhusen will also have to return home. Over the last 10 months Feldhusen has become part of the family, and the thought of putting her on a plane during a pandemic terrifies Markin.

“She’s one of ours, right? But you also remember that she’s not,” says Markin. “So you’re trying to find that balance.

“She came here for an experience and [you have to decide] when is it safe to head out and start seeing friends, because her friends are leaving in two weeks. So you know, trying to find that balance of what do you allow in the pandemic while still trying to do the right thing and making sure that everybody’s safe.”

COVID-19 cases have slowed to a trickle in B.C. The province has had a total of 2,790 confirmed cases and 168 deaths, but there are currently only 178 active cases according to a June 19 update from the health ministry.

But the pandemic continues to grow outside Canada’s borders. WHO’s daily update Monday reported 4,025 deaths and 152,323 new cases over the previous 24 hours. Of those, the United States accounted for 1,022 deaths and 34,666 new cases.

Still, Markin said her family will host another student in the fall. That student will quarantine in their house, wash their hands, cough into their elbow and be mindful of physical distancing. The extra steps, Markin says, are worth taking.

“I highly recommend it. Just to develop those relationships [and] understand more about how things work in their culture,” says Markin, who as she speaks glances over at Feldhusen. “You know, just even to see her, she’s completely fine without her family. She’s an independent young lady, strong in more ways than I realized.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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