Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday that international students in the U.S. whose schools switch to online classes for the fall semester will have to leave the country or risk violating their visa status.

Under the new rule, foreign nationals enrolled in U.S. educational institutions will have to leave the country unless part of their course load this fall is taken in-person.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) had allowed for foreign students to take their spring and summer 2020 courses online while remaining in the United States, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SEVP, the institution that sets the rules for student visas, is run by ICE, which is generally dedicated to immigration enforcement.

In its announcement, SEVP said foreign students who do not transfer to in-person programs and remain in the United States while enrolled in online courses could face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

Students taking in-person programs will be allowed to remain in the country, while schools with hybrid online/in-person courses will be required to certify their programs are not entirely online.

Students in English language courses and certain students pursuing vocational degrees will not be allowed to take online courses.

In Brief:

As part of this notification, ICE announced that:

  • “Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” SEVP’s press release states. “The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.
  • Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending in-person instruction only are bound by existing federal regulations, including the three-credit limit for online courses.
  • “Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model — that is, a mixture of online and in person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online,” the release reads. “These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,’ certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.
  • US embassy will not issue any new F1 or M1 study visa if the school is offering only online classes.
  • If you have an existing stamped visa in the passport, you will not be allowed to enter the US.
  • Students who are currently inside the US should leave the US.

Exceptions:

If you can change your school to the one which is offering a mix of online and in-person classes, you can stay in the US.

You can take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online to stay in the USA.

Your school must certify to SEVP using the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,”

A ‘reduced course load’ option is only available for:

  • Academic difficulties;
  • Medical conditions; and
  • Completion of a course of study.

Due to COVID-19, SEVP had instituted a temporary exemption regarding online courses for the spring and summer semesters. This policy permitted nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency.

Problems with Studying Outside the United States 

1. Many students may not be able to return to the US if they leave now. This may be due to any future restrictions, re-entry requirements, expired student visas etc.

2. Another issue is internet connection availability in the home countries. It wasn’t easy to transition into the online classes, when in-person classes were suspended. Now students will have to grapple with trying to access materials, lectures etc with slow internet connections.

3. Online content is highly regulated by regional copyright licenses and students may or may not be able to access their school’s content from outside the United States. This may cause the student to take a long time to complete their course of study.

4. Condusive conditions and environment to study back home. With the pandemic hitting hard and with the many lockdowns in place, finding the best environment to study in may be a challenge for some students.

F-1 nonimmigrant students pursue academic coursework and M-1 nonimmigrant students pursue vocational coursework while studying in the United States.

How much time do I have to Update their School?

Schools should update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but are later required to switch to only online classes, or a student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load.

Will Schools refund Fees If one leaves the US?

The school may not refund the tuition fee as they are conducting classes online. One can take those classes from their home country online if they decide to leave the US. Schools like Harvard and Princeton announced that all course instructions will be taught online for the 2020-21 academic year without any reduction in their tuition fee.

Finally, while it may be a wait and see situation, it is possible that someone will file an injunction or a lawsuit and students may not be required to leave the US immediately.

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