Consequences of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New Online Education Policies: International Students Will Not Be Allowed to Have Virtual Fall 2020 Semester in the U.S.

10 July 2020 Coronavirus Resource Center:Back to Business Blog
Author(s): Roy J. Barquet

On July 6, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which runs the U.S. student visa program, announced that international students will not receive U.S. student visas [F-1 and M-1] or be allowed to enter the U.S. if they are enrolled in only online classes for the Fall 2020 Semester.  This policy will supersede SEVP’s previous temporary exemption that permitted F-1 and M-1 international students to take more online courses than normally allowed to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the new temporary rules for international students for the Fall 2020 Semester?

The temporary procedural adaptations announced by SEVP establish the following guidelines concerning online instructions for the Fall 2020 Semester:

  1. Only Online Classes:  SEVP does not allow international students attending schools offering entirely online degree programs to remain in the U.S.  International students currently in the U.S. enrolled in only online classes must depart the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to maintain lawful nonimmigrant status.  The U.S. Department of State will not issue student visas to international students enrolled in fully online degree programs nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the U.S.

  2. In-person Classes: International students attending schools offering in-person degree programs are required to follow existing federal regulations, which allow F-1 students to take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online per semester.

  3. Hybrid Model:  SEVP allows international students attending schools that offer a hybrid degree program [mixture of online and in-person classes] to take more than one class or three credit hours online per semester.  

When does the new SEVP rules for international students take effect? 

SEVP’s new rules for Fall 2020 Semester will take effect at the start of a school’s pre-determined fall semester.  Please note that SEVP’s current COVID-19 guidance will remain in effect through the end of a school’s summer semester.

What happens if my school changes from in-person classes/hybrid model to only online classes mid-semester?

If a U.S. school changes its operational model mid-semester [i.e. from in-person/hybrid classes to only online classes], and as a result an international student changes to only online classes, the student must leave the U.S. or transfer to a school with in-person instruction.

My school is only offering online classes, can I engage in remote learning from my home country?

Yes.  While continuing international students attending schools offering online only classes are not permitted to enter or remain in the U.S., they can take online classes from their home country and remain in “Active” status in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).  In this case, international students have to meet the full course of study requirements or the requirements for a reduced course load. 

Will international students receive a SEVIS fee refund if they paid the fee, entered the U.S. and now must leave? 

No, international students will not receive an I-901 SEVIS Fee refund if they have to leave the country because their schools change to only online classes.

What are the new Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, requirements to maintain student records?  Will SEVP still allow electronic Form I-20 issuance for the Fall 2020 Semester?

Schools must reissue new Forms I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, for each international student certifying to SEVP that: i) the degree program is not entirely online; ii) the student is not taking entirely online classes; and iii) the student is taking the “minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”  The deadline to reissue new Forms I-20 is August 4, 2020.  Schools must indicate this information in the Form I-20 “Remarks” field in SEVIS.  Additionally, SEVP will still allow electronic Form I-20 issuance for the fall semester.

What are the new school reporting and procedural requirements?  When do schools need to submit new reporting and procedural requirements to SEVP?

Schools that offer entirely online classes or will not reopen for the Fall 2020 Semester must complete an operational change plan and submit it to SEVP [Email:] no later than July 15, 2020.  Moreover, schools that will offer in-person classes, a hybrid plan, or delayed/shortened sessions must update their operational plans by August 1, 2020.  SEVP will send an email acknowledging receipt of the operational plan to each school that submits procedural changes and add the submitted information to the school’s file.

Schools that will not have international students enrolled in the Fall 2020 Semester do not need to send procedural changes to SEVP.

Does the Fall 2020 Semester new guidance apply to schools generally or programs of study specifically?  How should schools report information if certain university programs are only online while others are hybrid?

SEVP reporting obligations apply to a school, rather than to a specific program within a school.  However, when a school’s curricular model varies by program or degree [i.e. a university’s law school provides only online classes, while a medical school offers hybrid classes], the school should indicate the differences.

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