July 8, 2020
On July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), a branch of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency charged with regulating universities that admit foreign students, provided long-awaited guidance for the fall 2020 semester. In an unexpected about-face from previous guidance issued in March 2020, SEVP has now determined that foreign students on F-1 visas cannot attend universities that will be 100 percent remote during the fall 2020 semester.
This new guidance forbids universities from issuing I-20s, mandatory F-1 paperwork, to returning or transfer students and to new students if their programs for the fall 2020 semester will be 100 percent remote. It also forbids U.S. consulates from issuing F-1 student visas to these same students, and forbids Customs and Border Protection from allowing them to enter U.S. land borders.
SEVP has also made clear that F-1 students currently in the United States who were planning to attend 100 percent remote programs for the fall 2020 semester must either transfer to a hybrid or in-person program, depart from the United States or face removal proceedings in immigration court.
Two important limitations should be noted:
- F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees are not permitted to enroll in any online courses. These students have no accommodations available to them.
- F-1 students who attend fully in-person programs in fall 2020 must follow the standard SEVP regulations, limiting them to three credit hours of online course(s) per semester.
In a broadcast message also issued on July 6 to all universities that admit foreign students, SEVP provided additional information on how it will implement this new policy: F-1 students attending “schools adopting a hybrid model—that is a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online.” This three credit hours online limitation had been the long-time standard for foreign students. However, this limitation was lifted in March 2020 guidance as most universities moved to 100 percent online instruction to complete the spring 2020 semester. Advocates and university administrators were anticipating that the March 2020 guidance would remain in place for fall 2020, thus allowing universities and F-1 students flexibility in addressing varying COVID-19 outbreak levels and state public health mandates. Instead, universities will be scrambling to create new hybrid programs, comply with SEVP paperwork requirements, admit transfer students and calm the fears and uncertainties of their students.