US: International students must return home if all fall classes are online

F1 student visas
Staying in the US this fall if your course is online-only could lead to deportation. Source: Johannes Eisele/AFP

International students on F-1 and M-1 student visas must leave the country or risk getting deported if all their fall classes are online, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday.

In a news release, the federal law enforcement agency under the US Department of Homeland Security, announced a “Temporary Final Rule” which bars these students from remaining in the US.

Those who do risk “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The SEVP sets the rules for student visas and is run by ICE.

International students were previously allowed flexibility when campuses closed and learning went online in the spring and summer semesters due to COVID-19.

The announcement comes as cases in the country continue to rise — on June 25, 37,000 new cases were reported. Major outbreaks have also hit college towns this summer as a result of house parties and sports practices, as lockdowns were eased in several states.

Here’s what international students should know about the new rule:

Hybrid learning model exemption

You can continue to stay in the US legally if your university has announced that they will be operating under the hybrid learning model.

Hybrid learning is a mix of in-person and online classes, and many universities are adopting this type of learning this fall.

Lectures held in a large capacity will likely be held online while students can attend in-person classes in smaller tutorials or groups.

The statement reads, “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”.

Your schools is required to certify that their programmes are now offered in a hybrid model to Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVP) via Form I-20 “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status”. This is to certify that the programme “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 programme”.

Taking an English or vocational course? If so, you will not qualify for this exemption. According to the new rule, F-1 students in English language training programmes or M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees are not permitted to enrol in any online courses.

In-person classes as usual

F1 student visas

In this file photo taken on May 7, 2020 The campus of Georgetown University is seen nearly empty as classes were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, DC. The United States said July 6 it would not allow foreign students to remain in the country if all of their classes are moved online in the fall because of the coronavirus crisis. Source: Saul Loeb/AFP

The new rule states that eligible students “attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations” and can only take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.

The  New York Times reported that thousands of instructors at American colleges and universities have said they are unwilling to resume in-person classes because of the pandemic.

Dana Ward, 70, an emeritus professor of political studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, said, “Until there’s a vaccine, I’m not setting foot on campus. Going into the classroom is like playing Russian roulette.”

The University of Southern California announced last week that a surge in coronavirus cases has caused a reversal of an earlier decision encouraging in-person classes in the fall.

The statement reads, “Public health guidelines continue to change, and Los Angeles County has yet to approve our plans for returning to full campus operations.

“Los Angeles is experiencing an alarming spike in coronavirus cases, making it clear we need to dramatically reduce our on-campus density and all indoor activities for the fall semester.”

International students also have the option of transferring to universities that are offering hybrid learning for the fall semester, but be prepared for academic disruption and logistic difficulties.

Applying for F-1 student visas

F1 student visas

New visas will not be issued for online-only programmes. Source: Spencer Platt/AFP

Planning to apply for your student visa in the US? Under the new rule, you will hit a roadblock if your programme is online-only.

The new rule states that F-1 and M-1 student visas will not be issued to those enrolled in universities or programmes that will go fully online in the fall semester. Students will be denied entry into the US too.

If you’ve received your acceptance letter and looking to apply for your student visa, check if your university will be adopting the hybrid learning model.

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