On July 6, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced changes to temporary exemptions for international students taking online courses due to COVID-19 for the fall 2020 semester. SEVP previously announced that international students would be permitted to take more online courses than typically allowed for the spring and summer 2020 semesters due to COVID-19, but this more flexible policy will no longer be in effect for the fall 2020 semester. Under the updated policy, international students must take some of their classes in person during the fall 2020 semester in order to remain physically in the U.S. New student visas will not be issued to students at schools that only offer courses online. International students will be barred from taking all of their classes online at schools offering both in-person and online courses this fall. The updated policy forces international students to choose between departing the U.S. and taking their courses online from their home country or transferring to a different school that offers in-person classes.
The key point in this updated policy explains:
- Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools that will operate entirely with online courses are not permitted to remain in the U.S. The State Department will not issue visas for such students, and foreign students already present in the U.S. will have to leave the country or transfer to another school that offers in-person class instruction.
Temporary exemptions under this updated policy for the fall 2020 semester include:
- Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools that will operate with normal in-person class instruction are bound by existing regulations that permit taking one class or three credit hours online per semester.
- Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools that will operate with a hybrid model of in-person and online course offerings will be permitted to stay in the U.S. provided that the foreign student’s courses are not entirely online. Foreign students may also take more than the normally permitted one class or three credit hours online per semester. Schools utilizing the hybrid model must certify via the student’s Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” that the course load will not be entirely online.
This policy should not affect foreign students who have completed a course of study and are currently working under Optional Practical Training (OPT). However, foreign students working under Curricular Practical Training (CPT) while also studying may be affected if their school is operating entirely with online courses.
Surprisingly, the updated policy does not provide any exemptions for those who might not be able to leave the U.S. for reasons such as personal and/or work-related emergencies. Furthermore, the policy does not provide any exceptions for medical students, interns, and residents who are actually working and serving on the COVID-19 pandemic’s front lines. Given that more and more American universities are financially dependent on international students who pay full tuition to study in the U.S., universities and colleges are preparing to challenge this updated policy in court. Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration in court on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.
For international students whose Form I-485 Adjustment of Status (“AOS”) Applications are currently pending, it would be prudent that they consult with a licensed immigration attorney and continue to wait and see if court proceedings change the rule before they decide to terminate their record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to rely on their pending AOS Applications to stay in the U.S.
ICE has yet to release the full text of the rule. More information can be found at: https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/sevp-modifies-temporary-exemptions-nonimmigrant-students-taking-online-courses-during.
The immigration attorneys at David Hirson & Partners, LLP are monitoring this situation as it develops and are available to help foreign students navigate U.S. immigration law.