Update: Despite the developments described below, on July 24, 2020, the government announced that students applying for F-1 or M-1 student visas, or trying to enter the U.S. with student visas to begin their studies at institutions offering only online courses due to COVID-19, or offering hybrid education where more than three credits would be online, will not be able to do so.
International students already in the U.S. who, according to the policy below, should be able to continue with their educations even if entirely offered in hybrid or online mode, would be well advised to consult with an experienced immigration attorney if they wish to travel abroad before traveling, until there is further clarification on their ability to return.
On July 14, 2020, a hearing was scheduled in the first lawsuit, filed by Harvard and MIT, challenging the administration’s week-old position that would have caused international student visa holders whose colleges will offer only online learning this fall to lose their legal status. Several other lawsuits, representing 18 states and hundreds of higher education institutions have also been lodged. Under the policy, colleges and universities had until Wednesday July 15th to inform the administration of their fall teaching plans.
On the day of the hearing, the administration rescinded its position, returning to the policy it has had in place since March 2020 providing flexibility to international students whose institutions have had to disrupt and modify their normal academic offerings and operations due to COVID-19. According to the court,
The Court was informed by the parties that they have come to a resolution to the combined temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction motions. The Government has agreed to rescind the July 6, 2020 Policy Directive and the July 7, 2020 FAQ, and has also agreed to rescind their implementation. The Government will return to the March 9, 2020 and March 13, 2020 policy. This moots the temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction motions, [ECF Nos. 4, 30], and will preclude enforcement of the July 6, 2020 policy directive and July 7, 2020 FAQ, which are being rescinded on nationwide basis.
This is a major victory for international students, for U.S. colleges and universities, and for U.S. competitiveness and the economy.
It remains to be seen whether students will trust this change to last, and whether this misguided action by the administration will turn prospective international students towards study in countries such as Canada instead of the U.S.