The Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced July 6, 2020 that the flexibility granted to nonimmigrant students in F-1 or M-1 status to continue their studies online due to the COVID-19 crisis will be modified for the fall 2020 semester. Federal regulations normally allow students to take one class or three credit hours online per full course load with limited exceptions. When schools had to close in the spring and/or summer terms to comply with state or local regulations, SEVP provided guidance in March on how to proceed with online or alternative learning procedures for currently enrolled F-1/M-1 students during the national emergency.
When classes resume for the fall semester, students who attend a school operating only online will not be permitted to take a full online course load and remain in the U.S. These students would need to transfer to another school or exit the country. However, schools operating with a combination of online and in-person classes may be permitted to take more than one class or three credit hours online. School officials must also issue a new I-20 to all students for the fall semester and certify that: 1) the school and/or the student’s program is not entirely online, 2) the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and 3) the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their program. In addition to these guidelines, SEVP has provided specific procedures on how to document operational changes.
Importantly, employers with F-1 or M-1 workers should carefully assess if their employees will be impacted by this updated guidance. Students who have been authorized by USCIS to participate in Post-Completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) do not have course requirements since they have completed their studies, and therefore are not likely to be affected by these changes. However, students who are authorized to work through Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Pre-Completion OPT, on-campus employment, and severe economic hardship will need to comply with SEVP rules regarding in-person and online learning.