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US ESL sector blasts SEVP guidance prohibiting online provision

English language providers in the US have warned of an “existential threat” facing the country’s ESL sector as a result of ICE’s guidance announced last week, which stated that F-1 visa holders in English language training programs are “not permitted to enrol in any online courses” from this fall.

ESL students on F-1 visas in the US will be required to attend in-person classes unless the SEVP guidance is rescinded. Photo: Pexels/ Fox

Since March eight ACCET-accredited campuses have closed permanently

The announcement – also barring M-1 students from online courses – has left the sector reeling, following its transition to online provision in response to the coronavirus pandemic, stakeholders have said. Not even hybrid programming combining online with some face-to-face will be permitted.

The move also threatens the safety of ESL students and staff disproportionately, in addition to the long-term viability of the sector, they indicated.

“When I read [the guidance] the first time, I hate to say it, but what came to mind immediately was ‘are language students less susceptible to Covid? Are they less valuable? Are they dispensable?’ It was heartbreaking to read that under the current circumstances,” said Beata Schmid of EF Language Centers.

By not allowing providers to offer hybrid teaching modes, the policy “eliminates the possibility that we can offer any sense of safety or security for our students and our staff”, president of The Language Company Brenda Robati said.

“These actions are unsafe for students. They’re unfair to students”

“It was an immediate, sweeping, overwhelming fear for the majority of our students,” she explained.

While The Language Company plans to return to in-person for its fall start, students at other providers may not have that same assurance, meaning educators must scramble to re-pivot to in-person classes to comply.

Speaking at an emergency summit convened by key associations, stakeholders also shared that ESL operators are juggling trying to comply with new federal guidelines but also state-wide or city-wide regulation, which may prohibit schools opening in some instances.

Institutions accredited by ACCET and their international students were “quite stunned” by the July 6 announcement, the organisation’s interim executive director, Judy Hendrickson, stated.

“These actions are unsafe for students. They’re unfair to students. They’re inconsistent with the actions of the Department of Education. They’re untenable for students and untenable for institutions,” she said.

“There’s been little attention to the absolute prohibition of online training for F1 students enrolled in language training. The impact on these F1 students is, in fact exponentially greater as the online training provision is absolute. For our institutions this will mean financial struggle. In some instances, it will mean closure.”

“We anticipate more fallout if they’re not changes to SEVP’s distance education prohibition for language schools.”

“It was an immediate, sweeping, overwhelming fear for the majority of our students”

While online courses for intensive English programs have not previously been permitted, providers argue that under current exceptional circumstances, flexibility is compulsory to ensure safety.

“I completely understand why language teaching should not be fully online under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances,” Schmid noted.

Online classes have helped EC English Language Centres to maintain “healthier” student numbers, they also allayed staff and student worries around safety, according to Haviva Parnes, its compliance and academic director – North America.

EC had plans for a hybrid model for its August reopening, but has had to shift to full face-to-face instruction to comply with the guidance, Parnes explained.

“Students were quite worried about what that would look like and wanted a lot of quick answers about how that was going to be structured and how we were going to keep them safe,” she said.

Operating on a face-to-face model may mean greater financial pressure too for businesses that are under strain.

Jennifer Phillips, director of Wisconsin ESL Institute, shared, “To transition everything to in-person classes for the fall means that we won’t necessarily have the resources to continue to teach the students that are at home [in their own country], which was one thing that was sort of keeping us afloat.”

Without confirmation that students will be able to enter the US for the fall intake or that online courses remain viable, WESLI would risk losing its close to 80% of students who are currently overseas waiting for visas to be processed, she indicated.

“We can’t really operate without that [cohort],” said Phillips.

As the ICE policy was announced, students overseas were excited as they assumed embassies would open and logistics around entering the country would be possible, which “isn’t the case”, Phillips added.

The University of Delaware’s English Language Institute has surveyed its students to find they are “really quite pleased” with its online instruction, the institute’s director Scott Stevens revealed. They now fear returning to in-person teaching.

“[Students] are fearful of returning to face-to-face, as are our faculty. Our university forbids us – which I agree with – [to] force any faculty member to go back from the classrooms uncomfortable doing so,” Stevens warned.

As operators grapple with the difficult choices facing them, there are widespread concerns about the way the US is also perceived as a destination prioritising safety and access for its international students.

For those who work for multinational organisations, student choice can be see in live real-time bookings across organisations.

Parnes at EC is “actually watching people make those choices”, she shared.

“It is happening right in front of us… they are making decision to go somewhere else… The news that they’re hearing as well is that, a lot of American cities are not safe places to be right now… [They] don’t feel wanted here, it doesn’t feel like an environment that they want to walk into.”

“A lot of work would be needed to ‘just simply reassure the market'”

Threats of removing the OPT route and temporarily suspending H-1B visas have “wash back” on the ESL sector for students who want to continue into further education in the US, continued Stevens.

“[Parents and students] don’t want to risk coming to the US and wait for the next day or the next week, [to see] what’s going to come out of the White House next.”

Even if the latest prohibition rule is rescinded, a lot of work would be needed to “just simply reassure the market”, he added.

The policy “changes the landscape” which will last long into 2021 and potentially beyond, Parnes concluded.

“It changes the landscape and it moves things in a direction that will be very difficult to move back from.”

UPDATE: On July 14, the Trump administration said it would rescind the SEVP guidance.

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