During the Fall 2020 semester, new or initial students attending schools that are operating entirely online will not be permitted to enter the United States or change to student status in order to take a full online course load, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has announced. Only students who were in active SEVIS status on March 9 and who have been maintaining their lawful status since that date can benefit from the agency’s March 2020 COVID-related online learning accommodations.
The new policy means that the State Department will not issue F-1 visas to new students enrolled in programs that are fully online for the Fall 2020 semester, nor will CBP will admit these students to the United States. Foreign nationals who have been granted a change of status application to change to F-1 status will be deemed in violation of status if they attend a fully online program. Those with pending applications to change status to F-1 will have their change of status requests denied if their records indicate a fully online fall semester. These policies also apply to M-1 vocational students.
Designated School Officials have been specifically directed not to issue a Form I-20 to any foreign national seeking new or initial F-1 status who is outside the United States and plans to take classes fully online. The directive also appears to affect issuance of Forms I-20 to those seeking a change of status from USCIS from a non-student status while within the United States.
SEVP’s policy announcement follows a set of fast-paced back-and-forth changes in SEVP’s online learning policy. In March, the agency announced some online learning accommodations due to the COVID-19 emergency, and stated the policies would remain in place throughout the public health crisis. Under the relaxed guidance, F-1 students were permitted to take more online courses than usual to maintain their full course of study in the United States.
In early July, SEVP abruptly reversed the accommodations. Several universities and U.S. states filed lawsuits challenging the reversal, and on July 14, in response to one of the lawsuits, DHS changed course again. The agency announced it would rescind the July reversal and revert to its March 2020 guidance. This most recent SEVP announcement indicates that the agency interprets its March guidance to provide online learning accommodations to only existing F-1 students.
Existing F-1 Students
Students who were in active SEVIS status on March 9 and who have been maintaining status since that date may engage in fully online academic programs in the United States in Fall 2020, in line with SEVP’s March 2020 guidance.
This is the case even if the F-1 student was engaged in online study outside the United States on March 9, since the March policy permitted fully online study from either inside or outside the United States.
Students who have been in active, lawful student status since March 9 may also remain in the United States in order to begin a new online course of study, engage in a hybrid in-person/online course of study, or switch between hybrid and online-only programs. In all instances, the student and school must comply with reporting requirements.
Issuance of Procedural Change Plans and Forms I-20 by Schools
Schools that have already submitted Fall 2020 procedural change plans to SEVP are not required to re-submit plans unless there are further substantive changes.
Schools that have already issued Forms I-20 for F or M students in accordance with SEVP’s early July guidance should reissue only if there are other substantive changes that would require a Form I-20 update.
Impact on F-1 Students in a Period of Practical Training
F-1 nonimmigrants who have completed a course of study and are working in a period of 12-month optional practical training (OPT) or a STEM extension continue to be unaffected by SEVP’s online learning policy. The policy also should not affect those who are enrolled in a course of study and engaging in a period of curricular practical training (CPT) as long as the students are otherwise maintaining their F-1 status.
Student Visa Issuance
Foreign students who have been maintaining F-1 status since March 9 are also permitted to apply for an F-1 visa at a U.S. consulate. The State Department has confirmed that it is aware of SEVP’s most recent guidance on online learning.
In practice, COVID-related travel restrictions and suspended consular operations may hinder students from obtaining a visa, but the State Department has emphasized that issuance of student visas is a high priority, as some U.S. consulates begin a phased resumption of visa services. The Department also announced that it is relaxing some COVID-related restrictions for students traveling from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Schengen areas of Europe. Procedures and policies for student visa issuance in these areas will be specific to each U.S. consular post.
SEVP’s latest announcement on online learning will prevent a large number of new foreign students from beginning their studies in the United States as planned. Universities and U.S. states could seek relief through the courts in response to this action.