F and M students attending schools operating entirely online during the fall 2020 semester may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.  This is the latest news from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) issued in a Broadcast Message (click here) to schools. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) posted this online (click here).

SEVP modifications related to online courses

Any flexibility that the SEVP allowed due to COVID-19 during the spring and summer semesters due to COVID-19 is being modified and restricted for the fall 2020 semester.  The flexibility related to online courses since many schools switched to online courses in response to COVID-19.  SEVP allowed F and M students to take more online courses than normally allowed for purposes of maintaining a “full course of study” and still maintain their immigration status in the United States.

Here are three scenarios F-1 students will encounter as they prepare to start the fall 2020 semester and have questions about maintaining their lawful status in the United States.

  • Attending schools operating entirely online.
  • Attending schools operating under normal in-person classes.
  • Attending schools adopting a hybrid model (with a mixture of online and in-person classes).

According to SEVP, F and M students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.  Furthermore, visas will not be issued to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will students be permitted to enter the United States if their courses are all online due to COVID-19. Granted, this is somewhat of a moot point since all U.S. consular posts remain closed and not issuing F-1 visa stamps.

What is the rule regarding online classes?

F-1 students may take no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per semester of online or distance education (8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G)). Said differently, F-1 students can only take a maximum of one class or three credits hours online per semester.  Therefore, for those F-1 students whose schools are operating under normal in-person classes for the fall semester, this applies to you.

What can an F-1 student in the United States do if their fall semester will be entirely online?

According to SEVP these students must depart the United States or transfer to a school with in-person instruction.  Advice that is more practical is to understand how your school is responding to COVID-19 and whether classes will be online, in-person, or a combination of both for the fall semester.  Speak with your Designated School Official (DSO) about issuance of this new guidance by SEVP, its impact on your program, and issuance of a new Form I-20.  This is especially important if your school is adopting a hybrid model, which includes online and in-person classes.  At this time, SEVP will allow F-1 students to take more than one class or three credit hours online under a hybrid model. However, your school must certify to SEVP through the Form I-20 that the program is not entirely online, that you are not taking an entirely online course load, and that you are taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in your degree program. One exception, this flexibility does not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs.

Next steps

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will publish a Temporary Final Rule in the Federal Register.  In the meantime, it sent this Broadcast Message (click here) to all SEVIS users on July 6, 2020 regarding the issuance of new Forms I-20.

Do you have questions or comments relating to this posting? Please feel free to contact me at montserrat.miller@agg.com.