Foreign students on student visas will not be allowed to enter the U.S. this fall if their educational institution operates entirely online this fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday. As coronavirus spreads, universities, colleges and other educational institutions in the U.S. are considering whether to hold in-person classes or operate fully online.
Per the new rules, foreign students studying in the U.S. on student visas whose schools opt to go fully online cannot remain in the country to do so.
The move may affect over 1.1 million foreign students who are currently having active student visas as they must either attend in-person classes during a pandemic or take them online from another country.
“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,” ICE said in a press release. “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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
The ICE said students already in the country and faced with online-only courses may take other measures to maintain their nonimmigrant status, “such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”
“The new rules apply to people with F-1 visas – the kind of visa required for international students to attend high school, college or several other kinds of educational institutions in the U.S. – as well as students with M-1 visas, which are required for vocational programs,” U.S. News reports.
Students who attend schools implementing a hybrid model of teaching this fall – offering both online and in-person classes – will be allowed in the U.S. as long as they are taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program and are not taking an entirely online course load this semester, ICE said.
Foreign students in the U.S. are usually required to do the majority of their learning in the classroom and given limits on how many online courses they can take. However, when the coronavirus situation worsened, the government made exceptions, including allowing the students to take more online classes though only for the spring and summer semesters.
“It’s an unprecedented public health crisis, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the allowances that they made to continue, especially given the fact that we clearly, quite clearly do not have a handle on the pandemic here right now, unlike other countries that have,” immigration lawyer Fiona McEntee was quoted by NPR. “This makes no sense.”
“If students can study online successfully from an academic point of view, why are we forcing them to come into a situation where they could put their health at risk and also the health of their classmates at risk?” she asked.
Currently, eight percent of colleges are planning to operate online, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the reopening plans of over 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities. The tracker shows that while 23% say they are planning to operate under a hybrid model, 60% are planning to hold in-person classes, and another 8.5% are still undecided.
Higher education lobbying group the American Council on Education is strongly against the new rule and has asked the ICE to reconsider.
“At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction,” the group president, Ted Mitchell, wrote. “ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis.”