By: Melissa Chavin
Students and Designated School Officers (DSOs) at school international offices during the CoVID-19 outbreak receive updates regularly from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), part of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) National Security Investigations Division. SEVP released an update to their FAQ for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19 on May 12, 2020. Here are some highlights - with an important update from August 20, 2020 regarding student travel to the United States and F-1 visa issuance.
Students Staying in Active Status on SEVIS While Abroad
An active F student who leaves the US to complete the spring term online remains in active status on SEVIS. A student is maintaining active status if they are making normal progress in their course of study. The five-month temporary absence provision in 8 CFR 214(f)(4) does not apply for students who remain in active status.
Due to CoVID19, SEVP will allow F and M students to temporarily count online classes toward a full course of study, in excess of the limits stated in in 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G)and 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(v), even if they are outside the US and taking online classes at school.
If a student reports to their DSO that they cannot participate in online classes due to lack of technology resources, they can still be kept in active status, if they intend to return when normal classes resume.
Schools should not mark the “Study Abroad” field for students who are just taking regular university courses from abroad online due to CoVID19. This is only for students attending an overseas institution as part of a formal study abroad arrangement.
DSOs do not need to update addresses for those studying from abroad due to CoVID19. They should instead mark the remarks field on each student's record “Departed the United States due to COVID-19.” DSOs should update addresses for students living elsewhere in the US, if there has been a change during the CoVID19 outbreak, or otherwise.
DSOs may remind students living in the US to update them of any change in their addresses 10 days after the move. DSOs should update their address in SEVIS within 21 days of being notified of the change.
Issuance of a New Form I-20: Electronic Signatures Permitted
During COVID19, electronic signatures on I-20 forms will be accepted by SEVP, as well as its visa-issuing partners in embassies abroad and US border officials. This includes physically signed and scanned I-20s, as well as electronically signed I-20s. No one can sign on behalf of the DSO however. Forms signed during this period will remain valid, until they need updating for another reason.
Note: Signatures on any form I-20 are valid for 12 months for an F student and six months for an M student.
Student Work without Pay
F and M students working without pay are considered volunteers and do not need work authorization documentation according to the SEVP FAQ. Many other questions on employment for pay, OPT and CPT, as well as OPT STEM work are left for the future in the FAQ.
The Million Dollar Question: Student Travel to the United States
The FAQ did not offer any predictions on when foreign students would be able to return to the US from places where there are currently travel restrictions, for example due to the presidential proclamations from March 11 and 14 - for those traveling from the Schengen Area (EU), the United Kingdom and Ireland. It also did not predict when US consulates would reopen for routine processing of F and M visas, for those with expired F and M visas or those who need first time F and M visas.
UPDATE - August 2020 - Student Travel to the United States
US embassies and consultates have opened their appointment calendars since late July/ early August 2020 for a few F and M visa appointments each day. Also, the US State Department has declared that students do not need a national interest exception to the presidential proclamations to fly directly to the United States.
Initial Attendance and Student Travel
Students must have an in-person component to their studies if they are coming for initial attendance. This will keep freshmen from entering the United States on F-1 visas. It will also keep them from obtaining F-1 visas. If they already have an F-1 visa issued, they may have trouble returning through US airports and land border crossings.
Continuing Attendance and Student Travel
Those students who are returning students or have Form I-20s marked "continuing attendance" can return to universities, colleges or vocational schools with 100% online classes. They will not have an issue with Customs and Border Protection at US airports or land border crossings.