The U.S. State Department on July 7 said that foreign students are welcome on campus in the United States this fall semester provided that colleges don’t hold all classes online.
It follows the release of guidelines by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on July 6 that said international students will be required to leave the country or transfer to another college if their schools offer classes entirely online in fall 2020.
In a press release published July 7, a spokesperson for the department said Homeland Security plans to make “temporary modifications” to F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visa requirements for the fall 2020 semester. The visas are for academic and vocational students.
“This will allow a mixture of both in-person and some online coursework to meet the requirements for nonimmigrant student status,” the release states.
This “temporary accommodation,” the spokesperson said, will provide greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while allowing for “proper social distancing” on open and operating campuses across the country.
“The United States has long been the destination of choice for international students, and we are pleased that many international students who had planned to study this fall in the United States may still have the opportunity to do so.”
The department noted that foreign students will still have to obtain the appropriate visa and may be subject to other visa processing or travel restrictions due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.
“Students should check with the local U.S. embassy or consulate for information specific to their country,” the spokesperson said.
News that foreign students could be forced to leave the United States if classes are held entirely online caused many U.S. colleges to scramble on July 7 to modify plans for the fall semester.
The announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the logistical challenges of safely resuming classes, particularly after the federal government had granted exceptions to the rules limiting online learning for foreign students when colleges and universities in March rushed to shutter campuses and move to online classes as the pandemic prompted lockdowns.
There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition. The State Department issued 388,839 F visas and 9,518 M visas in fiscal 2019, according to the agency’s data.
According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, during the 2018–2019 academic year, foreign students in the United States contributed nearly $41 billion to the national economy.
ICE said institutions moving entirely to online learning must submit plans to the agency by July 15. Schools that will use only in-person learning, shortened or delayed classes, or a blend of in-person and online learning must submit plans by Aug. 1.
In a statement, Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University—which recently announced that all classes would be taught online—said the university is “deeply concerned” by the ICE guidance for international students issued July 6.
“This guidance undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic,” Bacow said.
The guidance, he said, imposed “a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach.”
“We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year, disrupting their academic progress and undermining the commitments—and sacrifices—that many of them have made to advance their education.”
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, described the decision by Harvard University to conduct courses online in the coming academic year “ridiculous.”
“I think it’s ridiculous, I think it’s an easy way out,” Trump said during a round table in Washington on reopening schools. “I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Reuters contributed to this report.