The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a part of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on July 7 announced several modifications to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for the fall 2020 semester.
Significantly, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students who will attend schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. Students who are currently in the United States and enrolled in such programs must depart the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If this is not done in a timely manner, the student may face immigration consequences such as deportation.
- The US Department of State (DOS) will not issue visas to foreign students enrolled in US schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester.
- US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will not permit entry to foreign students who are enrolled in US schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester.
- Foreign students who are enrolled in a US school operating entirely online may remain in active F-1 student status if they live abroad and are taking online courses that meet the requirements for a normal full course of study or a reduced course of study.
Students in F-1 status attending schools offering normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations, whereby a student may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
With this new announcement, for schools offering a hybrid model, such as a mixture of online and in-person classes, SEVP will allow foreign students in F-1 status to take more than one class or three credit hours online subject to the following requirements. If the foreign student is taking both online and in-person classes during the fall semester, the school must certify to SEVP through the Form I-20 (Certificate for Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load during the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. These changes do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.
As a result of COVID-19, SEVP had instituted a temporary exemption for online courses for the spring and summer semesters earlier this year. This new announcement essentially revokes much of the exemption, complicating the situation for students currently enrolled at institutions that have already indicated they will be offering only online courses in the fall due to the ongoing pandemic.
Schools will need to issue new Form I-20s with the requisite certifications mentioned above to those students who will be engaging in hybrid study in the United States in order for them to maintain lawful student status. Foreign students in F-1 status who have completed a course of study and are working in the United States pursuant to a 12-month optional practical training (OPT) or a STEM extension of OPT are not affected by these changes. However, those who are enrolled in a course of study and engaging in a period of curricular practical training (CPT) while studying may be affected if their school is only offering online classes during the fall semester.
Employers should be aware that these changes may affect their student recruitment pool from certain schools, depending on each individual institution’s changes to their course offerings for the fall semester.