In light of some universities’ decision to hold classes primarily – or entirely – online this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Monday that international students cannot remain in the U.S. if they take a fully online course load.
While this rule was already in effect, there were hopes, especially for student-athletes, that the rules might be waived in light of the pandemic. Besides the impact on athletics, many international students face challenges like vastly-different time zones, poor living circumstances, and problems accessing the internet in their home countries.
The ruling issued by ICE this week actually gives students more flexibility for hybrid class models than are allowed under normal visa rules, though it is a rollback of more open rules that were in place for the spring and summer semesters of 2020.
According to ICE, students facing fully-online semesters must leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person classes.
“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. 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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
International students may have “hybrid” (mixture of in-person and online) semesters, but schools have to certify them to the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). If a school begins the semester with classes on campus but has to switch to being entirely online, the same rules apply and schools have 10 days to alert the SEVP of the change.
Typically, students can only take one class or three credit hours online, but the new exemptions will allow students taking a hybrid schedule to extend beyond those limits.
The move comes as U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration push for the nation to reopen in spite of the pandemic. Trump tweeted Monday: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”
Harvard and Princeton announced Monday that they will only invite students back to campus in groups segmented throughout the academic year. At Harvard, up to 40% of the undergrad population will be allowed on campus at once, with all freshmen coming in the fall and all seniors on-campus in the spring. Regardless of where students are based, however, they will take classes entirely online. At Princeton, freshmen and juniors will be allowed on campus in the fall, while sophomores and seniors will be there in the spring.
Last week, USC announced that it would move undergraduate instruction primarily online for the fall, save labs, studios, research courses, and selected others requiring in-person meetings; UCLA is taking a similar approach. The California State system announced in May that most of its campuses will remain closed for the fall semester.
It’s not clear at this time exactly what the new ICE rules mean for international collegiate athletes training at and attending American universities. There are other visa options besides F-1 and M-1 specifically designed for athletes to train in the US, but those visas sometimes offer restrictions on competing in collegiate athletics.