The original guidance allowed for distance learning to exceed normal limits to take into account the effect of Covid-19 on in-person education. The rule was applied to students who were “actively enrolled at a US school on March 9, 2020, and are otherwise complying with the terms of their [F-1 or M-1] non-immigrant status, whether from inside the US or abroad”.
If these students subsequently took courses online while outside of the country, they could (and still can) re-enter the US under this rule, “even if their school is engaged solely in distance learning”. New students will not have this right unless their course is a hybrid program “with some requirement for in-person learning”.
Sarah Spreitzer, director of Government Relations at the American Council on Education, welcomed the clarification from ICE and is hopeful that things will look different this year. “We’ve had indications that most of our campuses are going to be working to reopen as much as possible or at least be in a hybrid model,” Spreitzer said.
However, ACE is concerned that a visa backlog could get in the way of progress.
“I think that the biggest thing will be whether or not new students will be able to see their visas processed in a timely manner, and that’s really going to be dependent on whether or not the consulates can reopen and how quickly they can work through the backlog,” explained Spreitzer.
“We know that there are students that have been in the queue since last March, so we have our incoming freshman class of 2020, as well as our incoming class of 2021, and the state department’s going to process all of those visas.”
“We know that there are students that have been in the queue since last March”
ACE contacted the state department in March on this and other matters and Spreitzer noted that the department is “working to prioritise student visas, but obviously for health and safety reasons, I think they’re being careful about reopening consulates”.
“Whether or not they’ll be able to process all the visas in time for like August start dates, I don’t know, but I think that they are hopeful that they will at least be able to process them so that international students can come for at least part of the fall semester,” added Spreitzer.
“I think that is also, though, on a country by country, regional basis, depending on infection rates, the roll out of the vaccine and just the overall safety within a country.”
Since ACE wrote to the state department, there has been movement on travel restrictions with “national interest exceptions” made for a number of countries – namely, China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen area, the UK and Ireland.
ACE is hopeful that “the state and the Department of Homeland Security will continue to allow for flexibilities for our existing and new international students”.
Indeed flexibility is key all round, with admissions dates now being on a rolling basis, all part of an effort to avoid a worsening of the estimated 43% drop in new international student enrolments during the pandemic.
Being flexible is also Spreitzer’s advice to students. “The institutions want their international students there. They want them on campus. And again, we’re going to continue to work with state and DHS to try and make that possible.”