Since the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures nationwide and a transition to online classes, enrolled international students have had numerous questions about possible changes in visa guidelines. To help schools and international students steer through these unprecedented times, the U.S. government's Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP, has released guidance on student visa regulations, which it continues to update as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
Many international parents and students have concerns, says John Gu, an educational consultant who works mainly with Chinese students and is the founder of Unibond Education in Massachusetts.
"Returning students worry about the interruption of international travel," Gu says. "Other concerns include the economic impact on their financial aid or school-sponsored work opportunities, lack of internship opportunities, shortage of international student support due to funding cuts, schools' financial stability, etc."
Those concerns have likely grown after SEVP announced on July 6 that international students at colleges that provide only online classes this fall will not be able to remain in the U.S.
Here are four areas enrolled international students and recent graduates should be aware of in light of recent updated guidance from the government:
-- Requesting a temporary absence
-- Remote learning in the summer
-- Taking online classes in the fall
-- Flexibility with OPT required hours
Requesting a Temporary Absence
To maintain their immigration status, students on an F-1 student visa must enroll in what's known as a "full course of study." For the spring and summer, per government guidance, if students are not willing to enroll in online classes and therefore are not taking a full-time course load, they will have to request a temporary absence.
"Students can still take a leave of absence," Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote in an email, in response to the latest guidelines released on July 6.
Students planning to take the option of a temporary absence should contact their designated school official, or DSO, who helps them maintain their legal status to study in the U.S.
Typically, an F-1 student may be able to take an authorized leave of absence from school due to unforeseen circumstances. When students take a temporary absence, their record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, will be set to terminated status for "Authorized Early Withdrawal." SEVIS is used by the U.S. government to maintain information on international students.
When students take an authorized temporary absence of less than five months, their record can be corrected in SEVIS to active status when they return and re-enroll in school, which will allow those students to re-enter the U.S. using their previous SEVIS ID number, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, known as DHS.
Students outside the U.S. for more than five consecutive months will need to obtain a new Form I-20, the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, an important form used throughout an international student's studies in the U.S. They must also pay the I-901 SEVIS fee again if their original visa is no longer valid.
But as a result of COVID-19, there may be more flexibility. "Given the uncertainty that still exists, especially with the various travel restrictions and the temporary closure of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, the five-month rule has been relaxed for the time being," says Christian Stuart, executive director of the Center for On-Campus International Student Services in the College of Education and International Services at Andrews University in Michigan.
Remote Learning in the Summer
U.S. government regulations typically permit international students to take just one online class a semester. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, SEVP issued guidance in March that gave universities some flexibility to implement temporary adjustments, such as moving to online instruction, that would not affect the immigration status of enrolled international students who maintain their full course of study online.
SEVP says the temporary changes that permit international students to participate in remote learning remain valid through the summer session.
"F-1 students who are not in the United States, but attend a college or university that offers online or other alternative learning procedures, must participate in these programs to remain in valid status," says Raymond G. Lahoud, an immigration attorney and member and chair of Norris McLaughlin's Immigration Practice in Pennsylvania.
Stuart says once colleges begin offering only on-campus classes without online learning alternatives, "international students will be required to return to the U.S. to take the in-person classes, and if they are unable to return to the U.S., DSOs will be required to terminate student records."
Taking Online Classes in the Fall
Though SVEP permitted international students to continue with their spring and summer courses online, policies have changed for fall 2020.
The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to international students enrolled in institutions or programs that provide fully online instruction for the fall semester, and these students will not be allowed to enter the U.S., according to the new government guidance.
The guidance also states that international students who attend institutions that have announced they will have online-only classes in the fall -- such as Harvard University and the University of Southern California -- must leave the U.S. to take online classes from their home country.
"If their school is only offering online courses, they can maintain their nonimmigrant status remotely from their country of origin," Cutrell says. "If they choose to remain in the U.S., they need to transfer to another SEVP-certified school that is offering a hybrid of in-person and online courses."
Students attending those schools that offer a mix of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. However, the school must notify SEVP that the student's courses are not completely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load and that he or she is "taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program," per the new guidance. Cutrell says this means that students must be taking a full course load, which varies by education level, and attend and pass their classes.
Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University, said in a statement that the school plans to work closely with other U.S. colleges to create a path forward in order for international students to continue their studies "without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year."
Cutrell says if colleges pivot from face-to-face or hybrid classes to fully online classes midsemester and as a result, international students must switch to only-online classes, or students change their course selections and end up taking an entirely online course load, "they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as transfer to a school with in-person instruction."
However, the guidance doesn't spell out how this will affect international students who will face time zone issues if they must take online classes from their home country, or health issues if they must take in-person classes during a pandemic.
"For someone who has a low immune system, I was hoping to take online classes as it is a safer option," says Keziah Theresee Gerosano, an international student from the Philippines.
"Considering that New York City has had the highest (COVID-19) cases in the country, I am at a higher risk of schools switching to remote learning, which means that I would have to transfer to another school that offers in-person classes or fly back to the Philippines," says Gerosano, who plans to earn a bachelor's in politics, philosophy and economics.
She says one of her concerns is the admissions and transfer process at another school should King's College switch to online-only classes midway through the fall. "I just hope there will be support programs for international students during these unprecedented times," she says.
Lahoud advises international students to be proactive. "Students must start exploring alternatives now and not wait until the last minute. Many students that our firm represents have been actively researching and beginning the process of transferring to a college or university that is offering in-person instruction," he says.
Some F-1 students are taking a gap term, "seeking changes of status to visitor visas with plans on traveling throughout the United States, with the hope of changing their status back to the F-1 visa when and, if, any normalcy in higher education returns," Lahoud says.
Flexibility With OPT Required Hours
Another area with updated guidance that international students should be aware of relates to temporary employment through the Optional Practical Training, or OPT, work program. Typically, for what's known as post-completion OPT, students who have completed their degrees must work at least 20 hours a week.
The new guidelines for the fall 2020 semester state that continuing international students who are already in the U.S. can remain in active status in SEVIS "if they make normal progress in a program of study, or are engaged in approved practical training, either as part of a program of study or following completion of a program of study."
Cutrell confirms the new rules "shouldn't affect OPT."
SEVP previously updated its guidance due to COVID-19 so that if the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak caused students' hours to drop below 20 hours a week, they would still be counted as taking part in OPT.
"Students currently in the U.S. on OPT have some flexibility. Since OPT can either be a paid job or volunteer work or a combination of both, a student who drops below 20 hours per week of work hours might consider adding some volunteer hours," Stuart says.
He says students who are outside of the U.S. can participate in OPT if they had already applied and been approved before they left in the spring term, and if the OPT work remains with a U.S.-based company or organization and the student can do the work remotely.
"For example, if a student completed a teaching degree in the spring term and was offered a teaching position through OPT for the summer in a U.S.-based institution, but that teaching position is now for an online class because the institution moved to remote learning, the student can continue with the OPT while outside of the U.S.," Stuart says.
It remains unclear whether international students can apply for OPT while outside of the U.S. Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of DHS, wrote in an email that OPT applications are being "evaluated by USCIS officers on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility while noting all available information."
International students must have an active status listed in SEVIS, Bourke says, and their designated school official must enter a recommendation for OPT into the student's record.
In its latest guidance from July 6, SEVP says it will continue to develop and provide resources to colleges, including answers to frequently asked questions, to clarify and expand upon the latest information.
Stuart recommends international students stay in direct and regular contact with their individual school's international student services office and designated school official, and to avoid relying on rumors or anecdotal information.
"The DSOs and other international student services advisers at colleges and universities are monitoring the rapidly changing developments daily, taking in and processing updates from government agencies and interpreting students' options based on relevant regulations," Stuart says.
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