DHS Strikes Down COVID-19 Learning Accommodations For International Students

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many U.S. universities and colleges are understandably making the switch to fully online courses for the 2020 Fall Semester. Others are opting for a “hybrid” model of course enrollment, which includes both online and in-person classes. While this does not necessarily come as a surprise in light of social distancing requirements, many international students here on F-1 or M-1 and J-1 status did not anticipate the possibility of not being able to maintain their visa status should their university opt to move coursework fully online.

On July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) published new guidance related to international students and the consequences of taking online courses versus in-person courses for the 2020 Fall Semester. In a nutshell, DHS is allowing SEVP-certified schools the flexibility to follow the traditional in-person model or adopt a hybrid model that will include in-person and online courses. International students enrolled in schools offering in-person or hybrid curricula will be able to stay and study in the U.S.

Schools that choose to operate entirely online will not be able to produce I-20s for their international students. These students will need to either transfer to a different school operating under the in-person or hybrid model or leave the United States. Otherwise, they may face immigration consequences including removal proceedings. They may be able to stay active in SEVIS while continuing to take online courses from outside of the U.S. and can return to the U.S. in F-1 status when the school is once again offering in-person classes. However, this will depend on the school’s accreditation requirements and ability to provide online courses to international students abroad.

In March, DHS had issued an exemption for the 2020 Spring and Summer Semesters under which students were able to continue their studies online due to campus closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The exemption allowed international students to take online courses as part of their degree program beyond the one online, 3-credit course traditionally allowed by the regulations. However, DHS did not extend this exemption to the 2020 Fall Semester.

By August 4th, schools will be issuing new I-20 forms that will be used to certify to SEVP that the program in which the F-1 student visa holder is enrolled is not entirely online. Students must obtain the new Form I-20 to maintain their status or leave before the 2020 Fall Semester begins.

The ruling will affect international students with an approved curricular practical training (CPT). If their school does only online courses, their CPT will be cancelled and they will not be able to work, or stay in the U.S. However, if they can attend in-person classes and are actively enrolled, they can work with CPT.

This ruling will not affect international students who are here on an F-1 OPT or a STEM/OPT, as they are in F-1 status post-graduation from their degree programs and are not required to enroll in any courses.

The exemption does not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students. These students must leave the U.S. if their schools are not offering an in-person curriculum. Even the hybrid program will not work for these individuals, as they are not permitted by law to enroll in online courses.

Exchange visitors who have been approved to participate in the Teacher, Professor, and College/University Student categories of the Exchange Visitor Program to teach or take courses in the 2020 Fall Semester may start their exchange program only if their programs and host academic institutions are able to reinstate partial to full-time classroom participation or are able to meet other formal in-person requirements before hosting new participants.

Exchange visitors who are currently in “active” status in SEVIS and are continuing programs that were underway when the pandemic hit the U.S. are still considered in valid status and do not need to leave the U.S. even if their host organizations are finding alternative ways to maintain program objectives, including online classes or other arrangements, while preventing unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. A temporary modification along these lines of a current exchange participant’s program due to exigent circumstances beyond a sponsor’s or the host organization’s control will not undermine the program’s original consistency with the regulations.

Read the full news release here: https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/sevp-modifies-temporary-exemptions-nonimmigrant-students-taking-online-courses-during

Should you have additional questions regarding this ruling, please direct your inquiries to rgeorges@serottelaw.com or call us at 716-881-2600 for further guidance. As always, Serotte Law remains committed to assisting you through these unprecedented times.

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