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Mandating In-Person Classes During a Global Pandemic: ICE’s Latest Misstep Hurts Schools, Alarms Students, and Undermines Efforts to Stop the Coronavirus

10 Jul

With the continued spread of COVID-19 around the world and the record number of positive cases in the United States, it is difficult to understand why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is reversing course and will now require in-person classes starting in August in order for F-1 international students to continue their studies at accredited institutions and maintain their legal status in the United States.    

In March 2020, as the outbreak of the virus was forcing many colleges and universities to cancel inperson classes, ICE made a wise decision to temporarily suspend the restrictions on online learning for F-1 students that had limited such instruction to a maximum of one class or three credit hours per semester. This flexibility gave over a million international students the ability to remain in the United States while in-person instruction was suspended. Authorizing additional online coursework for F-1 students has helped slow the spread of COVID-19 on school campuses, particularly among older faculty and staff, a demographic known to have a much higher risk of succumbing to the deadly coronavirus. 

The proposed revisions announced by ICE this week, which came without any advance notice, would effectively undo these positive developments. The restrictions prevent F-1 students from receiving visas or entering the United States if their school has chosen to remain online-only due to the coronavirus, and U.S. consulates have already been advised to refuse these visas. The ICE revisions also would force F-1 students currently in the United States to transfer to a new school, leave the country, or face deportation if their current school does not return to in-person instruction for the fall of 2020.   

ICE’s new policy regarding online classes for F-1 students is grossly misguided for a number of reasons: 

  1. The threat of deportations for F-1 students due to the participation in online classes with accredited institutions due to a pandemic signals that the country is unwelcoming of immigrants, and it could have a chilling effect on enrollment of international students at U.S. colleges and universities while depriving the United States of vital pool of talent for the U.S. economy; 
  2. F-1 students who are sick or test positive for the coronavirus may avoid seeking treatment or may continue to attend classes even though they are infected for fear of being kicked out of school and sent back to their home country, increasing the risk of harm to themselves, their classmates, school faculty and staff, and even society at large; 
  3. F-1 students could be forced to return home mid-semester if their schools close yet again due to the coronavirus outbreaks or hotspots, contributing to the further spread of the virus around the world; 
  4. Forcing students to attend in-person classes endangers the lives of students, faculty, and university staff with health concerns or preexisting conditions and the lives of others with whom they may be in contact. 
  5. Prohibiting online instruction will cause severe financial turmoil to colleges and universities and correspondingly negatively impact U.S. students and their families. It is estimated that nearly 1/3 of the tuition at U.S. universities comes from international students who do not qualify for in-state tuition. Without the tuition fees from international students, U.S. students could need to pay higher tuition and fees or face a further reduction in services and activities; 
  6. The policy change at this late date could negatively impact schools and universities that detrimentally relied on the prior guidance in creating course programs. Additionally, the new I-20 certification requirement regarding in-person instruction will cause logistical nightmares for Designated School Officials (over one million I-20s must be issues between now and August 4, 2020 confirming each enrolled student will be receiving in-person instruction at a time when most such officials are working remotely to control the spread of the virus). 

Until the coronavirus is under control, schools must have the flexibility to open and close and require online learning as needed without jeopardizing funding from international student tuition or the U.S. public health. ICE’s one-size-fits-all approach in mandating a minimum level of in-person instruction during a global pandemic undermines efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. At a time of intense competition with other countries for needed talent and innovation, especially in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), the United States must remain an attractive option for the best and brightest minds around the world