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US made the right step in visa u-turn, but there is still work to do

International students were suddenly on everyone’s radar in the US as news spread of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s guidance preventing foreign students returning to America unless their classes were guaranteed to be held in person.

Photo: Pexels

As we safely return to our classrooms, there is one problem: there are very few students

Knowing full well that online classes provide critical alternative solutions in light of campus shutdowns due to the pandemic, Harvard and MIT promptly sued to block the new rules, and were joined by numerous other universities as well as many State Attorneys General.

As the international education community tuned in to watch these higher-ed heavyweights duke it out in court, many remained unaware that the impacts also extended to English language schools, which cater to tens of thousands of students annually and represent many students’ gateways to university education.

The temporary guidance ICE provided in March gave both universities and language programs permission to offer online instruction. It was not clear to those of us working with English language programs why this new guidance would single out our programs and prevent any kind of online instruction, including in hybrid format.

English language programs had already completed the rapid transition to online classes this past spring. We also helped students return home, in many cases navigating travel bans and flight scarcity, while identifying temporary solutions for students unable to leave the US.

Recently, we returned to face-to-face classes for two of our EF campuses with robust safety measures, including daily temperature checks, rapid Covid-19 testing, mandatory face masks, facial shields for teachers, and plexiglass barriers to promote social distancing.

We reduced class sizes, assigned desks, conducted frequent cleaning and sanitation, and encouraged students to socialise – distantly – outside our buildings, rather than in classrooms and hallways. Lounges are closed and meals are individually packaged.

While it hasn’t been easy, everyone is very happy to be back in face-to-face classes. We are in awe of the teachers, students and staff who have been so good at embracing these changes while being together apart.

Those of us working in English immersion programs agree that face-to-face learning is the preferred method, and it is certainly what we are used to at our language centres. However, the guidance from ICE would have been devastating: it would leave us no recourse in case of an emergency, except to send our students home under impossible circumstances.

As the former VP of Advocacy for EnglishUSA, I have never completely shed my advocacy hat and immediately contacted my senators and representatives, who voiced their opposition to the guidance. The wonderful community of international English educators also mobilised to promote the truly detrimental impacts this would have on not only higher education, but English language programs in the US.

Our programs provide a path to higher education in the US, but many students also come for personal and professional enrichment. Many are only here for a short time, so they spend freely in their communities, because they are also tourists!

We estimate that each of the 550+ accredited English language programs in the US employ between several and hundreds of staff and have anywhere between 50 and hundreds of students at any one time. All of these programs would have had to close completely under the proposed guidance, leaving thousands of teachers, staff and students in limbo – of course we are enormously relieved it was retracted.

That said, it is not time to celebrate just yet. As we safely return to our classrooms, there is one problem: there are very few students. While this is helpful as we get everyone acclimated to social distancing, it is economically untenable in the long run. So, now we anxiously watch and wait as embassies around the world slowly open their doors again. No visas, no students!

But beyond that, there are other topics we need to keep an eye on, most of which are summarised by the NAFSA advocacy site. A few front of mind topics are:

    • Funding: We still need to advocate for funding to ensure the State Department can safely reopen embassies for visa processing with transparent, easy-to-understand instructions and timely processing for visa renewals and issuance. We also hope in-person interview requirements for visa applicants will be waived to the fullest extent allowable by law, and it will report to Congress and the public on plans to process the expected surge of visa requests.
    • Practical Training After Graduating: Although not directly related to English language programs, students make educational choices, starting with language training, based on whether they can receive OPT, so the continued operation of those programs must be ensured.
    • Travel Bans: We are also watching the confusing world of travel bans – who can come, who can’t and when?
    • The Future: And, finally, and most importantly, how will the US and the rest of the world cope with this pandemic? How long will it last? What is safe and what isn’t?

For now, my advocacy hat remains firmly in place – but our joint efforts have given me hope that we can continue to work together to advocate for our students, staff and teachers so we may continue to offer quality English language programs in the USA.


Beata Schmid is Senior Vice President at EF International Language Campuses. She is also board member for not-for-profit association Eaquals and former President and VP of Advocacy for US ELT interest group EnglishUSA and former commission member for ACCET, a US accrediting agency.

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