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SEVP announces temporary exemptions for foreign students in the US

Updated: Jul 10, 2020  | Tags: USA Visa Requirements, USA Immigration

SEVP, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, has announced changes to the temporary exemptions for foreign students in the US who may be taking classes online during the fall semester. DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) is planning to publish the modifications as a Temporary Final Rule.

Non-immigrant students have been able to pursue academic coursework with an F-1 visa while students studying vocational subjects have been eligible to remain in the United States with an M-1 visa.

As the COVID-10 pandemic began to sweep across the world in the early spring and schools moved their classes online, SEVP announced temporary exemptions concerning online courses. The change allowed non-immigrant students to take a higher proportion of classes online than federal regulations normally allow. This permitted these students to preserve their non-immigrant status during the Coronavirus emergency.

Who is affected by the new temporary exemptions for fall 2020?

For the fall 2020 semester, the temporary exemptions include:

F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant students studying at schools with all classes online will not be allowed to remain in the US. Visas will not be issued for students wishing to study programs that are entirely online and these applicants will not be allowed to enter the country. Students currently in the US who are enrolled in academic programs that have fully switched to online-only must leave the country or transfer to a school or college with in-person classes. Failure to do so may lead to consequences for their immigration status, such as deportation.

Nonimmigrant students with an F-1 visa who are attending educational institutions still operating with in-person classes may take a proportion of classes online, up to three credit hours or one class per week.

F-1 students attending colleges with a hybrid teaching program with a mix of in-person and online classes will be allowed to study a greater proportion of the course online. The school must comply with SEVP regulations via Form 1-20. This certifies that:

  • The program is not fully online
  • The student’s course is not all online during the semester
  • The student is taking only the minimum number of online classes required for their course of study.

Thes exemptions do not apply to M-1 students studying vocational subjects or F-1 students studying English language courses. They are not allowed to register for any online courses.

If schools begin the fall 2020 semester with in-person classes but later switch to online classes only, they must update their details in the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System within 10 days of the change being implemented. They must also notify SEVIS if a foreign student changes course and by doing so, finds themselves studying an online-only course. Students on non-immigrant visas are not allowed to remain in the country if the course they are studying changes to online-only. They must either leave the United States or if possible, change their course load to comply with the new rules.

Academics and politicians criticize the decision to withdraw US visas from nonimmigrant students whose courses are now online

Harvard has announced that all their courses will be taught online during the coming academic year and the number of students living on campus will be limited. According to figures from the chronicle of Higher Education, 9% of US schools and colleges are going to be teaching all classes online this fall, although this number could rise.

Larry Barcow, the President of Harvard, describes the new restrictions as being a blunt approach to a complex issue and one that gives foreign students, especially those studying online programs, very limited options other than leaving the country or changing schools.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator, says that the decision to “kick out international students” at a time when many institutions are moving to online learning because of the need for social distancing is xenophobic and cruel. Samatha Power, formerly the -US ambassador to the UN, echoed her comments, saying that the decision would be unworkable for most students.

The move follows several recent policy changes taking a harder line on USA immigration. Unlike other changes such as restrictions on the number of H1-B visas for foreign workers, the administration is not justifying this temporary exemption as being part of President Trump’s “America First” policies. Academics see the move as unjust because students may not have online access if they return to their home countries. They also fear that it will diminish America’s standing and influence around the globe.