The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has announced that the guidelines for participation in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program has carried over from March 2020.
To account for the effect of Covid-19 on in-person education, the original guidance allowed distance learning to exceed normal limits. The rule 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 within or outside the US.”
If these students later took courses online while outside 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 option unless their course is a hybrid programme “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 expressed hope that things will be different this year. “We’ve had indications that most of our campuses will be working to reopen as much as possible or at least be in a hybrid model,” Spreitzer said.
ACE, on the other hand, is concerned that a visa backlog will impede progress.
“I think the biggest thing will be whether or not new students will be able to see their visas processed promptly, and that will depend on whether or not the consulates can reopen and how quickly they can work through the backlog,” Spreitzer explained.
“We know there are students who have been waiting since March, so we have our incoming freshman class of 2020, as well as our incoming class of 2021, and the state department is going to process all of those visas.”
In March, ACE contacted the State Department about this and other issues. Spreitzer stated that the department is “working to prioritise student visas, but, for health and safety reasons, I think they’re being cautious about reopening consulates.”
“I believe that is also on a country by country, regional basis, depending on infection rates, vaccine roll-out, and overall safety within a country.”
Since ACE’s letter to the State Department, there has been movement on travel restrictions, with “national interest exceptions” granted to several countries, including China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
“The state and the Department of Homeland Security will continue to allow for flexibility for our existing and new international students,” ACE hopes. Indeed, flexibility is essential throughout, with admissions dates now being set on a rolling basis, all to avoid a worsening of the estimated 43 per cent drop in new international student enrolment during the pandemic.
Spreitzer also advises students to be adaptable. “The universities want their international students to be there. They’d like to have them on campus. And, once again, we will continue to work with the state and DHS to make that a reality.”