The SEVP sets the rules for student visas and is run by ICE. The guidelines come as colleges and universities across the state have begun to announce their plans for fall, most of which do not include fully reopening their campuses. Then, the Department of Homeland Security said worldwide students were temporarily allowed to count online courses, given "the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 emergency".
The president of Harvard University, Larry Bacow, said in a statement quoted by US media: "We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving global students, particularly those in online programmes, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools".
No new visas will be issued to students attending programs that have been moved online for the coming semester.
The notice didn't go over well on social media, where many pointed out that these students had paid to study in the United States and many came from countries where internet connections were spotty, required programs (like Google Suite or Zoom) were not available, or the time zone difference was such that they'd be forced to "attend class" in the middle of the night.
Those attending schools that are adopting a "hybrid model" that offers a mix of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than one class but must also certify to SEVP that their programs are not entirely online and that the student doesn't have a fully online course load that semester.
On the other hand, many schools have come up with an innovative model to conduct classes - in-person or online - this year.
"Active students in the United States enrolled in such programmes must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status".
Harvard on Monday said it would invite first-term students to live on campus, but classes would continue to be held online. The rule has students and many professors up in arms.
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"For a lot of worldwide students like myself returning home right now is a death sentence for many reasons, including the pandemic".
Her comments were echoed by the former United States ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who said the decision made "no sense and [is] unworkable for most college students".
"At a time when colleges and universities of all sizes are struggling with virtual learning and the uncertainties of COVID-19, they are now faced with losing students who have been a crucial revenue source for schools", she said.
This decision will affect thousands of students who visit the United States every year and is also likely to build pressure on universities to re-open by fall. Colleges too will likely feel the bite as the room and board/meal plan cash-cow that on-campus students represent runs dry.
Institutions - now in the process of figuring out how to proceed with the fall semester - will have to find a way to hold in-person classes or lose the foreign students, who are a major source not only of revenue, but of academic talent, especially in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Citing data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the report said foreign students contributed 44.7 billion dollars to the U.S. economy in 2018.
F-1 student visa holders in English language training programs or vocational students who hold M-1 visas are not exempt, according to ICE.
Fresno City College President Carole Goldsmith said there are over 100 worldwide students at the college, and she pledged to help them remain enrolled.