Institutions are pledging support for the thousands of students impacted by the announcement: Harvard University posted a statement explaining that it was “deeply concerned” that the guidance imposes a “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem”.

“[It gives] international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools,” the statement continued.

Harvard – which plans to teach all of its undergraduate programs virtually in September even if students reside on campus – wrote that the guidance “undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the challenges of the global pandemic”.

The Ivy league institution said it would work closely with other institutions to chart a path forward. “We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year.”

“We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave”

Executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, Miriam Feldblum, said that the guidance serves only to undermine international student educational attainment and harm the nation’s ability to attract and retain global talent.

She said the rule would unduly pressure institutions that are already experiencing fiscal strains and uncertainty to “prematurely open in-person courses or else risk losing invaluable student enrollments and contributions”.

“We call on ICE to reverse course and provide greater flexibility; and for Congress, through forthcoming appropriations or legislation, to direct the reversal of this problematic and harmful policy,” Feldblum added.

For schools offering a hybrid model, international students will be able to take more than one class or three credits online, but institutions will need to certify that the program is not entirely online, and that the student is taking the “minimum number of online classes” required to make normal progress in their degree program.

In a recent letter to the departments of State and Homeland Security, the American Council on Education and 38 other associations had requested continuing flexibility on guidance issued concerning international students.

“We respectfully request that DHS extend and/or expand prior guidance to continue providing regulatory flexibility for international students enrolled at our institutions of higher education in the upcoming 2020- 21 academic year and participating in coursework through various alternatives either inside or outside the US,” stated the letter signed by ACE president, Ted Mitchell.

But Mitchell wrote that this latest guidance “takes the opposite tact”, calling the move “horrifying”.

“While we would welcome more clarity about international students studying in the United States, this guidance raises more questions than it answers and unfortunately does more harm than good,” Mitchell said in a statement.

“At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction.

“We urge the administration to rethink its position and offer international students and institutions the flexibility needed to put a new normal into effect,” he concluded.

“This decision will likely push even more students to delay the start of their studies”

Speaking to The PIE News, Jason E. Lane, dean of Educational Policy and Leadership at the University at Albany, described it as a shocking announcement – especially as international students are already faced with significant hurdles such as limited flights and closed embassies.

“Now they have to worry that if they cannot get courses on-campus or if their college or university shifts back to fully remote learning due to a spike in the pandemic that they will be forced to leave the country,” he said.

“This decision will likely push even more students to delay the start of their studies or look to study in a country with more friendly policies toward international students.”

Lane explained that universities will have to prioritise international students for courses with at least some face-to-face interactions if they desire to have international students as part of their student population in the new academic year.

Educators also took to social media to air their views on the new guidance, with some calling it an attempt by the Trump administration to force universities to reopen more broadly in the fall.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, director of International Student & Scholar Services, Kenneth J. Reade, expressed disappointment at what he described as “poorly written and unsatisfactorily considered federal public policy on immigration”, and called on international students to not make any sudden decisions based on the guidance.

“The SEVP announcement is very much subject to change”

“The SEVP announcement is very much subject to change and there is an expectation that additional guidance or amendments are forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead,” he explained.

“UMass will do absolutely everything in its power to continue to make our Amherst and Mt. Ida campuses a safe place for you to continue your education…we value your presence and contributions… [and] we will get through these complicated times by supporting each other and working together,” Reade added.

Around one million international students attend US colleges and universities annually, yielding an estimated economic impact of $41 billion and supporting more than 450,000 jobs.

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