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Many Vancouver ESL schools may close permanently as stream of international students dries up

Last Updated May 14, 2020 at 11:54 am PDT

Students at Global Village Vancouver. (Courtesy Facebook/Siobhan Fox)

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VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — English language schools for international students are taking a big hit as travel restrictions squeeze their bottom lines and force permanent closures, highlighting a half-billion dollar industry that’s on the edge.

Global Village Vancouver says it will shut down by the end of June and won’t be reopening.

Siobhan Fox is losing her job after 12 years at the Yaletown school and says some of her peers have been there as long as 20 years.

“I think I saw it coming pretty quickly when it became obvious that things weren’t going to be going back to normal anytime soon,” she says.

“I just understood that the industry as a whole would likely be severely impacted. So having some finality gives me, you know, that ability to move forward. But of course, it’s sad and it’s a loss.”

It was clear what Global Village had to offer could not be recreated online. Still, they tried, and many students will be completing their courses before the closure or with affiliates in its wake.

“Students come to Global Village to learn English, but almost unanimously, students tell you that it wasn’t only English that they learned. It was that, you know, preconceived notions that they had about students from other cultures were were wrong, that there’s more similarities between humans and there are differences,” she says fondly.

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My school is closing. Global Village Vancouver is closing its doors for good. It's not a surprise that our school, and our industry as a whole, has been hit very hard by the pandemic. It's so very unfortunate that we are no longer able to operate. As a staff, we did an amazing job of coming together and providing classes online for our students. However, as all my former students know, GV is so much more than that. The experience we offer can not be mirrored in an online class. I've spent 16 years of my life in this industry, 12 of them at Global Village. GV was more than a school to me, it was a home. The staff were more than co-workers, they were family. However, the students were truly what made my job awesome. The endless stories, laughter, and fun will never be forgotten. I may have taught you a lot, but I can guarantee you taught me more. What I loved the most about Global Village was that beyond teaching English, students learned about each other; they learned that like the school’s name we truly are a Global Village. It has been an absolute privilege to do my job at GV for the last 12 years and I am grateful to every student I have had the opportunity to teach. I honestly don't know what's next for me, which is both scary and exciting, but for now let's celebrate what an amazing place Global Village was. Please share your best memory of GV with me in the comments.

A post shared by Siobhan Fox (@shabomb) on

“You know, they learn not only about Canada, but about all of their classmates’ countries and that atmosphere and that vibe and those things are really lost in the online classroom.”

Alumni of Global Village shared their stories, photos, and memories, saying the news was “hard to read.”

“I had an unforgettable experience in GV. I don’t have enough words to express how grateful I am to everyone who made part of it. Especially I wanna thank the teachers, they always had a great attitude and were always there for you,” writes one former student of Fox’s.

Fox says she’s proud of how teachers adapted so quickly, but notes the work itself did become more challenging.

“You know, learning a new platform to teach from and then also being the face of the school and also helping students emotionally while they were dealing with being in a foreign country during a pandemic, being an emotional support for them while also dealing with your own emotions, obviously challenging,” she says.

In British Columbia, the ESL industry accounts for around $500-million annually. It employs more than 1,800 people and attracts nearly 50,000 students to the area, according to Languages Canada, the industry regulator.

President and CEO of Global Village Victoria, Paula Jamieson, told CBC Radio in Victoria between 75 and 90 per cent of English language schools could face closures as they struggle to pay rent.

Fox worries any number — if not all — of the 15 or so schools in Vancouver’s downtown area could permanently alter places like Yaletown and the Financial District.

“Until the industry recovers it’s going to look a lot different downtown,” she imagines.

“ESL students take up a lot of our tourism … and spend a lot of money and go to a lot of restaurants and fill up bars. And none of those things are happening right now. But presumably they’ll start again and hopefully the industry recovers alongside that,” Fox says.

Now, she’s considering all her options as the shifting landscape of opportunity evolves.

“Obviously, I’m thinking career change right now: not job, not school change, because obviously this is something that’s affecting the industry across the board.”

Fox says it’s going to be hard adjusting to not going to class everyday, but she’s tired from long days instructing on Zoom from the kitchen table.

“I’ve spent so many years trying to remind people that I don’t teach at a high school. These are young adults or older adults. You know, I’ve had students who are 70 years old working alongside students who are 18 years old from totally different countries; laughing at their cultural differences or misunderstandings,” Fox remembers.

“The laughter and the closeness and the bonds between the most unlikely people, like, that’s really what made it unique and that ability because they are adults and to just sort of have a friendship along with being the teacher. That’s something I’ll really miss.”