US Bars International Students from Online-Only Learning in Fall
US Bars International Students from Online-Only Learning in Fall

US Bars International Students from Online-Only Learning in Fall

Some in-person instruction will be required to maintain a student visa, and universities must tell the US government of their plans to open by July 15.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Jul 7, 2020


Update (July 14): The Harvard Crimson reports that DHS and ICE have rescinded the policy that would bar international students from taking online-only classes during the fall semester.

Update (July 8): The Harvard Crimson reports that in response to ICE's announcement, Harvard and MIT have sued the Department of Homeland Security and ICE because the decision to force in-person instruction for international students was made, as the suit alleges, “notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so.”

Since higher education institutions ended in-person classes in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been uncertainty over what classes will look like in the fall. Universities will soon have to come up with an answer. On Monday (July 6), the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that international students would not be able to take online-only courses and retain their student visas without attending some in-person instruction, and universities have to declare their plans to the government by next week.

Having a restriction on international students and online classes isn’t new: the students are traditionally restricted from taking more than three credit hours online per semester. But that was before the global COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to cancel in-person instruction and move instruction online. This temporary final rule states that students during the fall 2020 semester may take more online courses than before, but there still has to be some in-person instruction. If those options aren’t available at their institutions, they are expected to “[transfer] to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status” and could be subject to removal, per the document. 

Some people online were quick to speak out against this decision, calling it discrimination and questioning ICE’s motivation for making this decision in the middle of uncertain times, rather than offering leniency. According to ICE, the agency is providing flexibility during this pandemic, and as school is about to begin and they have “a concordant need to resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations,” according to the announcement.

“There’s absolutely no reason for this underlying rule,” Allen Orr, the president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, tells Inside Higher Ed. “What is the issue? They are paying tuition, they are enrolled in the school program, they’re doing the exact same thing their counterpart students are doing.”

Times Higher Education reports that organizations such as the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) are critical of the measure and have released statements asking for leniency during this crisis. 

See “The Pandemic’s Effects on Recruiting International STEM Trainees

Some scientists have taken to Twitter, where ICE’s decision is referred to as #StudentBan, to voice their concerns and even brainstorm ways around the regulation. 

“Maybe we can get around this lunacy by providing a single, 1 credit, half-hour, in-person class to international students that is a discussion about their rights and about how much the school benefits from them,” tweeted Prosanta Chakrabarty, a professor of ichthyology at Louisiana State University. “Teach it once in the football stadium and don’t take attendance.”

Casey Boyle, an associate professor of rhetoric and writing and the director of the Digital Writing & Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin tweeted: “I’m not sure how many international students there are at my university, but I’m prepared to teach up to 5,000 in-person independent study courses over the next year.”

In addition to the pressure this mandate is putting on students, universities are required to respond to ICE by July 15 with their intentions to have classes in-person, online, or as a hybrid. 

“The guidance is unworkable and deeply harmful,” Craig Lindwarm, vice president of governmental affairs for the APLU, tells The Washington Post.