COVID prompts course change for B.C. international schools

Pandemic driving institutions to look to local immigrant markets

Wedo Education executive director Cindy Kidd: “you have kids who are now back in school physically, and they are coming back after school into an online environment for another couple of hours with us” | Rob Kruyt

While COVID-19 has dealt a heavy blow to B.C.’s international education industry by dramatically cutting enrolment, it has also created new demand in some sub-sectors that are benefiting agile players.

That’s because a record number of B.C. high schools students have been forced to study from home, creating significant demand from nervous parents who want their children to excel academically despite not being physically at school.

That level of stress is especially high in immigrant communities, where culture often puts enormous emphasis on a child’s education. According to Vancouver-based Wedo Education, that stress has created a demand that has driven the school to rapidly grow to a staff of 30 and a teachers’ roster of 45 in a span of less than a year to run its double-teachers after-school program.

Wedo, which was launched in March after two years of product development, originated with the idea of serving the Chinese community and eyeing traditional international students. It now focuses on the new immigrant, secondary-level supplementary education sector and plans to expand its reach into other areas such as the Vietnamese immigrant community, which may have similar demands for such an educational service.

“I have been travelling the world as part of my work in the last two decades, and there was always a common thread,” said Cindy Kidd, executive director of Wedo and a veteran business executive who has worked with the public and private sectors in the Chinese market prior to moving into education. “Parents were focused on the education of their children at all costs. No matter what, it’s the most important element for them.”

The international education market’s plight has been well-documented during the pandemic. While major universities have projected budget shortfalls due to some students being unable to travel to B.C. to study, the lower end of the market – language schools and post-secondary academies that have set themselves up as stepping stones for foreign students to get into larger institutions – has been hit hard with several going out of business during the pandemic.

Wedo had a few advantages that helped the school ride out the storm, Kidd said. First, being launched as the COVID shutdown occurred, the school has yet to invest heavily in large classrooms and facilities. So when students were forced to stay home, Wedo and other flexible players were able to transition to online teaching platforms without incurring the costs of too much bricks-and-mortar infrastructure.

Online education, however, has its own challenges – especially in the supplementary education market that Wedo is trying to fill.

“With supplementary education, you really have to ensure that you have a product, a service, that will motivate the kids,” Kidd said. “You have kids who are now back in school physically, and they are coming back after school into an online environment for another couple of hours with us.”

Kidd added that’s why her school has doubled down on its double-teacher system (two teachers in each class – one to teach, one fluent in the students’ mother tongue to translate or help contextualize the course work) to keep students motivated.

That second teacher is also there to keep parents informed about their child’s progress – a crucial portion of the service’s appeal to immigrant families, Kidd said.

“That teaching assistant, that’s the person communicating back to the parents,” she noted. “The parents are the key in an immigrant family. Without the parents, I don’t believe these students would succeed. In all of our programs – whether it is Wedo’s 8-12 supplementary classes or our long-term academic planning counselling service – we ensure that our parents are involved every step of the way. That is very different from what you usually see in a traditional Canadian family.”

Ultimately, Kidd said, her goal is for some immigrant children to overcome their cultural barriers and pick up more aspects of western critical thinking and problem solving, so they can succeed in post-secondary education and beyond.

She said that the potential remains for this demographic of students – who previously had the mobility to pursue secondary education anywhere in the western world – to increase their exposure to Canada, thereby increasing their odds of staying and contributing to the local economy.

Kidd conceded that there is no guarantee these students would stay. Wedo’s academic planning counselling helps students find their ideal universities, and schools like those in the Ivy League in the United States remain the most popular.

She added, however, that the Wedo program may boost their willingness to stay or return after university.

And whatever gains B.C. makes on that front, Kidd said, would inevitably be welcomed by an economy in dire need of human resources.

“One of the main challenges that B.C. businesses are dealing with is finding talent,” she said. “That has been especially difficult in the last few years because major companies globally have come into Vancouver to take up most of the talent that is here.…  I’m truly hopeful that these students will give back when they are finished on the global stage and be here in B.C. – or at least in Canada – helping the economy.” •