International Students in the Time of COVID

By: Eric Welsh

Many U.S. colleges and universities are opting to provide classes online this fall to keep students and faculty safe as the country continues to struggle to control the spread of the coronavirus.  These decisions frustrate and confuse many students, but international students in particular have experienced heartburn and headaches.

In early March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that it would allow F and M students to take more online courses than would normally be allowed in order to maintain their lawful status in the U.S.  Then, in early July, SEVP abruptly reversed course, declaring that international students may not stay in the U.S. if they planned to take a full online case load in the fall.  Lawsuits followed, and SEVP flip-flopped again, agreeing to rescind the July guidance and keep in place the more permissive rules it had instituted in March.

The current rules (which are the rules put into effect in March 2020) allow students in F or M status to remain in the U.S. and maintain lawful status, even if their fall 2020 coursework will be 100 percent online.  If students are asked to leave student housing, they can continue to study online, either inside or outside of the U.S.  If a required course is cancelled because it is not offered online, the “full course of study” requirement can be waived.

The rules also allow international students to maintain “Active” status even if they opt to take their online classes outside of the U.S. (a departure from the standard “five-month rule” that prohibited students from maintaining “Active” status if they were outside of the U.S. for more than five months).

These rules only apply to international students who were actively enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9, 2020, and otherwise complying with the terms of their visa status.  Even if currently in their home countries taking online classes, those students should be able to obtain visas or entry to the U.S.  However, international students in “new” or “initial” status after March 9, 2020 will not be able to enter the U.S. to enroll in the fall term to pursue a course of study that is 100 percent online.