For international students studying at U.S. universities that suspended in-person classes, the last week has not been easy.
The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that international students can take classes online without it adversely affecting their visa statuses. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities to partially close their campuses, many unanswered questions remain.
The American Council on Education and six other major higher education associations wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf on Monday raising some of those questions. Among them: whether there is a possibility to extend the status of students whose visa statuses are set to expire but whose home countries are under health-related travel advisories, making them unable to go home.
Another question is how the State Department plans to adjudicate student visa applications if consulates and embassies in countries affected by the outbreak are closed for extended periods. U.S. embassies and consulates in China and India -- two countries that together account for about half of all international students in the U.S. -- have announced disruptions to regular visa services, and the State Department said on Twitter that it is suspending routine visa services in most countries due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The ACE letter also raises questions about DHS’s preparedness to handle an influx of applications for the optional practical training program, or OPT, a program through which international students can temporarily work in the U.S. after they graduate. Last summer there were delays in processing OPT applications.
Questions about OPT have been at the top of many international students’ minds. Students must be physically present in the U.S. in order to apply for OPT, which allows them to work for one to three years after they finish their programs, depending on their field of study.
Bruno Beidacki, a master’s student studying media business and strategy at Kent State University, in Ohio, had planned to stay and work in the U.S. through OPT after he graduates in May. Beidacki, who is originally from Brazil, said he had several job interviews and had been in contact with journalistic organizations with which he’d previously interned. But he said many of the companies he’s been in contact with have frozen hiring given the economic uncertainty caused by the virus, making him worried about whether he can receive a job offer in time to use his OPT benefit.
Beidacki is also worried about being able to re-enter the U.S. His university has advised graduating international students who want to apply for OPT not to leave the U.S. But he said he didn’t get the email to that effect until after he returned to Brazil last week.
Fearful that the borders might close, he flew to Brazil March 11, the day after Kent State announced it was suspending face-to-face instruction in favor of virtual education. He said he chose to return to Brazil for a number of reasons, including the fact that he could live rent-free with his parents, that Brazil has fewer COVID-19 cases than the U.S. and that he would have better health insurance there in the event he got sick (his health-care plan in the U.S. has what he describes as “significant” copays and deductibles).
“Finally, I'd rather go through this difficult period with my family -- after all, most of my friends in Kent were moving home and I'd be left without many people around me,” Beidacki said.
Héloïse Le Grand, a senior at University of California, Los Angeles, studying political science and communication, said international students are facing a lot of stresses.
“Just emotionally speaking, not having people close by, I think, takes a toll on how you’re feeling," says Le Grand, who is originally from France. She is staying in the U.S. and has applied for OPT. Like Beidacki, she is concerned about the job search.
"Let's just let’s say this thing goes on until October and no one is hiring because not a lot of people start a job remotely, then it could be an issue because under OPT you’re only allowed 90 days of unemployment, so if you don’t get a job by the 90th day after your OPT start date, then your work authorization is revoked and you have to leave the country," Le Grand said. "It does add another stress. If we don’t find jobs really fast -- and we might not -- then it’s all for nothing, and we could have gone home a couple weeks ago."
NAFSA: Association of International Educators sent a letter to acting DHS secretary Wolf, asking, among other things, that DHS not consider time spent unemployed during the COVID-19 emergency toward OPT unemployment limits.
NAFSA also asked the Departments of Homeland Security and State to publish a notice of "special student relief" in the Federal Register, as it has done before, such as in the case of Nepali students affected by a major earthquake in 2015 in Nepal, or in the case of students from Libya and Syria affected by their countries' civil unrest since 2011.
"Regulations allow DHS to suspend or alter rules regarding duration of status, full course of study, and employment eligibility, for specific groups of students from parts of the world that are experiencing emergent circumstances," NAFSA said in its letter. "We ask DHS and DOS to develop an SSR package that addresses the reality that some schools and exchange programs may have to cancel classes or have students temporarily drop below a full course of study."
In addition, NAFSA has asked the Homeland Security department for flexibility in adjudicating immigration benefits, including for the option for students to apply for OPT while they are outside the country. And the association asked the agency to provide written assurances that it will consider student or scholars to have continuously maintained their visa status for purposes of eligibility for future immigration benefits if they choose to temporarily leave the U.S. but continue taking classes online in accordance with their colleges' COVID-19 policies.
"We want to make sure that international students and scholars are not held at fault as schools are responding quickly with new policies for how they will operate," said Rachel Banks, NAFSA's senior director for public policy and legislative strategy. “Hopefully, the agency will recognize that we are in unusual times and it requires unusual policy situations.”
The Department of State referred a request for comment to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to several inquiries.
Meanwhile, Americans who were studying abroad have been recalled by their home institutions as government warnings against international travel have intensified.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week expanded its level-three warning against nonessential travel to include most of continental Europe and subsequently issued a level-three advisory against travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The State Department also issued a global travel health advisory last week advising U.S. citizens to reconsider all travel abroad due to COVID-19. Just yesterday the State Department upgraded that global advisory to its highest level, urging Americans to avoid all international travel and, if they are already abroad, to travel home if they are able to do so.
The Trump administration also acted last week to restrict travel from the U.K., Ireland and most of continental Europe: while (despite initial confusion) the restrictions do not affect American citizens or permanent residents, they do affect international students who participate in their American university's study abroad programs.
The escalating government warnings and travel restrictions have triggered colleges to recall all their students from Europe -- the most popular destination for Americans studying abroad -- and elsewhere. Johns Hopkins University has suspended spring 2020 study abroad participation worldwide and asked students in continental Europe to return to their permanent residences by last Wednesday, and for students at programs in the United Kingdom, South America, Africa and Oceania to return by March 23. Princeton University likewise asked all students studying abroad to return to their permanent residences by March 23. The study abroad provider organization CIEE acted March 15 to suspend all spring semester programs worldwide.
With students being recalled, many study abroad providers are continuing to offer courses online. Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., is creating its own online coursework for students for whom it is not an option to continue their study abroad coursework online directly through their foreign host institution or study abroad provider. The provost's office said two of the courses are designed to "build off -- and enable you to earn credit for -- the work you have already begun abroad."
"A lot of the programs in Europe are continuing with online courses because they have to serve their own students as well as foreign students," said Melissa Torres, the president of the Forum on Education Abroad, a professional association. "Just as the U.S. universities and colleges have pivoted to online courses, so too are universities in Europe."
Torres said there has been a tremendous financial impact on the industry.
"You have contracts with people around the world who have to be honored, administrators and faculty who have been contracted -- those people still have to be paid," she said. "Not to mention all the home-stay families and bus drivers and tour guides that depend on education abroad for their livelihoods."
And then there is the impact on students.
"A lot of people have spent a lot of time convincing students to study abroad, and now you have students who are in the thick of it, or were in the thick of it until last week," said Torres.
She said students have developed relationships with home-stay families or local roommates; they're exploring cities and they're taking classes at foreign universities. Along the way, these students were learning about global issues, such as the impact of climate change on local communities, and getting different perspectives on those issues.
"That’s harder to replicate online. I think for the most part the coursework can continue. What’s lost is that ability to immerse yourself in this environment. For some students they’ve been planning this for years, they've been thinking about this even before they came to college. That’s a terrible disappointment for them and their families -- and some may not have the opportunity to do this again."
Sam Weithers, a junior majoring in creative writing at Knox College in Illinois, echoed that point.
"We don't get a redo of this," said Weithers, who had to come home early from a semester studying writing in Ireland. "You can reschedule vacations; you can't reschedule studying abroad. We got one chance, and this is what we get."
Weithers, who flew home Saturday, said she feels awful about the situation.
"After a couple of days home, I'm getting used to it and focusing more on the global situation now that my personal situation is calmed down, but it's always in the back or front of my mind that I should be in Ireland," she said via email. "It's so unfair, and studying abroad in Ireland is what I've been looking forward to most in college. And online courses are nowhere near the same. It's uncharted territory and I don't get to be around all of my Dublin friends. I understand that the situation in the world is a lot larger than us and that we need to be home, but that doesn't eliminate or invalidate our own feelings of hurt and anger about the end of our abroad experience."