The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) issued a new Broadcast Message Monday, July 6, 2020 covering COVID-19 and Fall 2020, in which, it puts tremendous pressure on educational institutions in the United States to offer in-person classes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. ***Post Publication Update: The Department of Homeland Security rescinded the Broadcast Messgage on July 14, 2020. The announcment was made at the hearing for the Harvard and MIT v. Department of Homeland Security lawsuit in in Massachusetts US District Court.***
Instead of the flexibility to take online classes offered to schools and students on F-1 and M-1 visas in spring and summer 2020, the DHS Immigration & Customs Enforcement unit SEVP have put back into effect rules on holding in-person classes to maintain student status. The Broadcast Message gives schools and students a preview of a Temporary Final Rule that will be published in the Federal Register, to comply with administrative rule-making laws.
Three School Categories
The new guidance creates three school categories:
1/ 100% Online. Schools operating completely online. These schools cannot host foreign students on F-1 and M-1 visas in the US. Their students can maintain active SEVIS status from abroad, however. This allows those students to keep their longer term visas alive. Some students have up to five-year, multi-entry visas, depending on their nationality and visa reciprocity given to that country;
2/ “Old School” “Normal” Schools opening for normal in-person classes (a rare scenario for fall 2020 in the US). These schools can host F-1 and M-1 students as before COVID-19 with students taking only one online course per semester (total 3 credits); and
3/ Hybrid. Schools opening under a hybrid model (a mix of online and in-person classes). The latter seems to be the most common model for major universities. Students at these schools can take more than one class online, but need to take at least one class in-person. The latter is not possible for many students as there are not that many courses being offered in person at some universities and in some majors. Possibly schools will increase their tutorial class offerings, allowing one-on-one guided study with a capstone paper or project.
The big change is that students in the first category of schools CANNOT take a full load of courses and REMAIN THE THE US! They may stay in active SEVIS status by studying from abroad, but they do not really need to - since (1) the Department of State will not issue visas for students enrolled in such schools, and (2) the US Customs and Border Protection will not admit students enrolled in such schools. Active students enrolled in such programs must depart the US or transfer to a school with in-person instruction or a hybrid program to remain in the US in a lawful status. They can also change to another legal status. They will otherwise be subject to removal proceedings.
Students in category 2 schools, open for normal in-person classes, can take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online, as under pre-CoVID19 federal regulations, see 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G).
Students in category 3 schools, open under the hybrid model (a mix of online and in-person classes) will be allowed to take more than one class online. They will also need one in-person class, which will tether them to their school campus.
IMPORTANT EXCEPTION for the allowances for those at hybrid schools: No student enrolled in English language training programs or M-1 students can enroll in any online courses, even if they are in a hybrid school!
Schools will need to update SEVIS as soon as possible, but not later than 21 business days from July 6, regarding what school category they will be this semester, and attest to each student not being in an entirely online program.
Hybrid Schools: Updating Every Student’s I-20
Hybrid schools will need to certify to SEVP through each student’s Form I-20 that:
▪ the program/school is not entirely online,
▪ the student is not taking all online courses in fall 2020, and
▪ the student is taking the minimum courses required to make normal progress in their degree program, either online or in-person.
This information should be indicated in the SEVIS* “remarks” field. DSOs** have only 21 business days from the date of this Broadcast message to do update every student’s record.
Pressure for In-Person Classes from SEVP
Major universities are giving in-person classes for say 25 person classes and less. However, very few classes are offered that small. For some students, there are no classes like that in their majors. These include many STEM classes. Many STEM and business classes just do not need class sizes that small at a big university. Those classes will be extremely competitive to get into. Even American and legal permanent resident students will be wanting to take at least one in-person class to keep sane in this environment. This SEVP rule will make those classes imperative for foreign students, and force out American and legal permanent resident students.
This is tremendous pressure to create sub-par classes from the federal government, taught by younger professors who are not immuno-compromised - e.g., teaching assistants, graduate students, and newly hatched professors. Students who end up falling out of taking at least one in-person class during the course of the fall semester must have their SEVIS terminated. They would need to transfer to a school which has in-person classes mid-semester or leave the country and study remotely.
Students without visas at all and who live abroad could theoretically take a semester of all online courses. These people would not need any sort of active SEVIS until they could get one when universities go back to in-person classes. This would not likely be until fall 2021, when a vaccine is available in enough quantity for 65% of the population of the United States to take.