The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office has issued a Broadcast Message to all users of the Student and Exchange Visitors Information System (SEVIS) with new guidance regarding international students in the fall semester. The new guidance is in some ways dramatically different than guidance issued at the start of the pandemic emergency, particularly for international students enrolled in institutions that will be operating entirely online in the fall. While not explicitly linked, the guidance comes at a time when President Trump, Education Secretary DeVos and other leaders have expressed a strong desire for institutions to fully reopen in the fall.
In contrast to the March guidance, international students at institutions that will operate entirely online in the fall may not take all their courses online and remain in the United States. They must either leave the United States or transfer to another institution that is offering in-person instruction in order to maintain their legal non-immigrant status. Students that are currently outside the U.S. will not be issued a visa or be allowed to enter the country to attend an institution that is operating entirely online. Furthermore, students at institutions that switch from another mode of instruction to all online classes during the fall semester must also either leave the country or transfer to another institution. The March guidance allowed international students at institutions that switched to entirely online learning to remain in the U.S. Finally, students outside of the country may take online classes, but only if their college is operating entirely online.
International students at colleges that are “under normal in-person classes” are subject to the usual limitation of only taking one course, or three credits, online. Students at institutions that have adopted a hybrid mix of in-person and online courses will be allowed to take more credits than usually permitted online, but only to the extent necessary to make normal progress in their degree program.
DHS has indicated that it intends to issue this guidance soon as a Temporary Final Rule. Yesterday’s communication was intended to give institutions more time to comply with some very tight deadlines. By August 4, colleges must issue new Forms I-20 to all their international students certifying that they are not operating entirely online and that the student is only enrolled in online courses to the extent necessary to maintain their progress towards a degree.
Schools that intend to operate entirely online or be closed during the fall semester must file an operational change plan with ICE no later than July 15. Institutions that intend to operate in another mode (in-person, hybrid, etc.) must file their plans by August 1. Schools that change their plans must file a changed operational plan within 10 days of the change.