On July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) sent a broadcast message to all users of the Student & Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) announcing changes to their policy concerning online coursework for nonimmigrant international students. Before the pandemic, SEVP regulations held that F-1 students must be enrolled in at least 12 credit hours per academic term and only 3 credit hours per term may be online and still count towards a full course of study. Earlier this year, SEVP instituted a temporary exemption to this rule permitting students on F and M visas to take more online classes than normally allowed and maintain their nonimmigrant status for spring and summer classes.
Under the modifications to SEVP policy announced on July 6, students attending U.S. schools with an entirely online Fall semester may not take a full online course load and remain in the U.S. The Department of State will not issue visas to students in fully online programs, and Customs and Border Protection will not permit them to enter the United States. For students in a hybrid model in which the fall semester is only partially online, F-1 visa students may still take more than one online class, so long as their academic program includes some in-person coursework.
F-1 students in English language training programs and all M-1 students are not permitted to enroll in any online courses during the upcoming fall semester.
The announcement from SEVP encouraged students affected under the new regulation to depart the country, transfer to a school with in-person instruction, or risk immigration consequences. All international students attending schools in the United States for the fall 2020 semester will receive an I-20 form from designated school officials certifying that they are not taking an entirely online course load. Schools must update and reissue I-20 forms to reflect these changes in program enrollment and student information by August 4.
SEVP also noted that students enrolled at a school that will only offer online coursework can partake in remote learning from their home country. Schools planning to offer entirely online academic programs this fall must complete an operational change plan and submit it to the Department of Homeland Security by July 15 (only 9 days from SEVP’s announcement).
Shortly after SEVP announced the changes, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration. Harvard and MIT saw the measure as an effort to pressure universities into holding in-person classes. They—along with other universities and immigrant advocates—say that the new rules may discourage international students from attending U.S. schools and that the suggestion that students either return to their home country or transfer to another school is unreasonable. As of now, no decision has been made on the lawsuit.
If you will be affected by these new regulations, please contact an immigration attorney to figure out what to do next. This information is intended to educate and should not be taken as legal advice.