WASHINGTON DC: Students currently in the United States enrolled in online programmes must depart the country or take other measures, such as in-person instruction to remain lawfully in the US.
If not, they may face immigration consequences, including visa processing or travel restrictions, the Department of State said in response to new federal guidance on international students.
"The Department of Homeland Security has announced its plan for temporary modifications to F-1 and M-1 non-immigrant visa requirements for the fall 2020 semester. This will allow a mixture of both in-person and some online coursework to meet the requirements for non-immigrant student status. This temporary accommodation provides greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also allowing for proper social distancing on open and operating campuses across America," the spokesperson of the State Department said in a statement.
"International students will still have to obtain the appropriate visa and may still be subject to other visa processing or travel restrictions due to COVID-19," the spokesperson added.
For seeking further details, the department said that foreign students should check with the local United States embassy or consulate for information specific to their country.
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With universities closed due to the coronavirus pandemic -- many in response to governors' orders -- federal agencies have granted the flexibility to existing requirements that international students must take classes in person.
The major associations of universities had asked federal officials to extend that flexibility into the fall, as the continued spread of coronavirus has led many schools to offer classes online only in an effort to prevent further spread of the disease, as per American media reports.
Monday's announcement requires universities to certify by July 15 whether they will be fully open, operate on a hybrid model or offer online-only classes, The Washington Post reported.
"Now universities have nine days to respond. There is just tremendous concern about trying to protect current students who are members of their communities and their educational investment," Lizbet Boroughs, associate vice president of federal affairs at the Association of American Universities, which represents 63 leading research universities in the United States, was quoted as saying.
The University of Southern California dramatically revised its fall semester plans last week amid an "alarming spike" in cases in the region and intensified restrictions from the governor, recommending undergraduates to take all classes online and reconsider living on or near campus.
Several Congressmen and top educational institutions decried the policy change.
Congressman Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, chairwoman of the Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations Subcommittee, said in a joint statement that the new policy will damage the economy, harm US institutions, and do nothing to improve America's safety or security.
"There is no apparent legitimate reason for the (Trump) administration's inflexibility toward international students attending colleges and universities that adopt 'online-only' policies, the Administration seems to just want them to leave," the two lawmakers said.
International students contribute billions of dollars to the US economy and barring them from our country will deprive Americans of badly needed income.
"We cannot allow President Trump to continue destroying jobs and cause needless suffering just to satisfy his anti-immigrant base. We oppose this reckless policy and the lasting harm it will cause to universities and communities across the country," they said.
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne expressed concern that the decision will create more uncertainty and complexity for international students.
"Our international students must be able to continue making progress toward completing their degrees, and as a university we intend to support them in doing so. We will be working with our peers and national associations to understand how best to accomplish that in the context of these new rules, as well as to urge the Administration to rethink its position," he said.
The State Department, which issues visas to international students, however said the decision is temporary.
"This will allow a mixture of both in-person and some online coursework to meet the requirements for nonimmigrant student status," it said.
This temporary accommodation provides greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also allowing for proper social distancing on open and operating campuses across America, the State Department said.
"International students will still have to obtain the appropriate visa and may still be subject to other visa processing or travel restrictions due to COVID-19. Students should check with the local US embassy or consulate for information specific to their country," it said.
In a statement, the Embassy of India Student Hub encouraged students to monitor their university's official channels for university/program specific information and to remain in contact with their university DSOs for additional questions.
"We will issue updates in the coming days as we receive more clarity on this broadcast message," it said.
Congresswoman Debbie Dengell urged the Department of Homeland Security to review its decision.
"Removing these students due to circumstances beyond their control is senseless and concerning. There does not appear to be any public benefit to the US, it will harm the quality of education students receive because of the many logistical challenges, while not in the classroom many remain on campus and in the community contributing to educations and cultural experiences in many other ways, and many have already signed leases and paid tuition as well," she said.
Among all the uncertainty, it's disturbing that the federal government would initiate removal proceedings for international students especially given it is a reversal of an earlier decision taken by the agency at the on-set of the pandemic, she said.
"Online courses are safe and sensible ways for universities to protect their students while continuing to provide a quality education while scientists study the best way to ensure students can learn in a safe environment," the Congresswoman said.
"With the high probability that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to make distance learning the predominant mode of instruction at colleges across the country, the rule change means that most of the estimated 1. 1 million international students will be forced out of the country in September," Chancellor Felix V Matis Rodriguez of the City University of New York said.
In a statement, he said that this misguided policy change also threatens to hurt higher education at a time when the nation's universities are working hard to adjust to the dual health and economic crises caused by the pandemic.
"We are once again disappointed that our country's leadership continues to restrict and reduce opportunities for those who seek them in the United States," he said adding that he has instructed his administration to explore and pursue measures that would help these students remain in the country and continue their education at CUNY.
(With PTI Inputs)