The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the virus that causes COVID-19 "is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person." The CDC also says that "it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads." Given this type of transmission, some schools have considered using on-line or distance education modalities as part of their strategy to mitigate interruptions to coursework.
This has both academic implications, which apply to domestic and international students alike, and immigration questions, which apply to F-1, M-1, and J-1 students who are currently in the United States or who are outside the United States because they are subject to a bar on their entry or re-entry due to the January 31, 2020 January 29, 2020 residential Proclamation 9984, Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Persons who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19 China-travel entry ban) or the February 29, 2020 Presidential Proclamation, Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus (COVID-19 Iran-travel entry ban).
The F-1, M-1, and J-1 Distance Education Limits
SEVP Coronavirus Guidance for F-1 and M-1 schools and students
On March 9, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) sent Broadcast Message 2003-01 to SEVIS users, providing guidance on potential procedural adaptations for F and M nonimmigrant students, including adaptations to online coursework policies. Schools that adapt their policies (for example, by temporarily moving to online instruction for all students) must provide SEVP notice by submitting certain information identified in Broadcast Message 2003-01 Appendix 1, "within 10 business days of the date of the decision to initiate the operational change."
A basic review of the standard limits on F-1 distance education
The regulatory limits to online or distance education courses as part of a full course of study remain exactly the same as they have been since introduced by the final INS SEVIS rule effective January 1, 2003. The current state of the rule is fully discussed in the Adviser's Manual at section 3.F.1.7.
Under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G), no more than the equivalent of one on-line/distance education class or 3 credits per session may count towards the "full course of study" requirement, if an online or distance education course "does not require the student's physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class."
If an online class does require "the student's physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class," then it is not subject to the 1-course/3-credit limitation. The scope of this exemption, however, naturally gives DSOs pause. For example, what if a school decides to offer coursework completely online but require students to take the final exam in person? Absent SEVP guidance, the general rule is that more physical attendance requirements are better than fewer in-person requirements, along an interpretive continuum of risk.
The regulations are silent on the question of whether a distance education course can satisfy the full course of study requirement if it is the only course taken in the final semester of study. However, Module 3 of SEVP's Online Training For School Officials states that, "If students only need one course to complete their program of study, the course cannot be completed through online or distance education." In the same way, the SEVP Study in the States piece Reminders About Online and Distance Learning Courses says that "students must enroll in at least one course that requires physical attendance in their final academic term."
Schools can temporarily adapt their programs in response to COVID-19, however, by following the procedures outlined in SEVP's Broadcast Message 2003-01.
F-1 English language students and M-1 students
The regulations disallow F-1 English language students and M-1 students from using any online or distance education classes towards satisfying the requirement to enroll in a full course of study. However, SEVP Broadcast Message 2003-01 applies generally to all "SEVP-certified Schools and F and M Students," so schools can apparently adapt their programs for these students and programs as well.
In a March 11, 2020 email to J-1 exchange visitor program sponsors the Department of State Exchange Visitor Program advised: "We anticipate a range of changes to program circumstances that will affect exchange visitors. ECA asks sponsors and exchange visitors to consult with host organizations to seek alternative ways to maintain program objectives and/or employment, such as telework, online classes, or other arrangements, while preventing unnecessary exposure to the disease and its spread. A temporary modification along these lines for exigent circumstances beyond a sponsor’s or host entity’s control does not undermine a program’s consistency with the regulations."
Academic Considerations Applicable to Both Domestic and International Students
Changing the delivery modality of coursework, especially mid-term, must be handled appropriately, taking into account not only immigration questions for international students, but also issues related to accreditation, contractual obligations, technical and human resources, and financial considerations. Schools should become familiar with the March 5, 2020 Guidance for interruptions of study related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education, which addresses "five potential student and campus scenarios" about how to comply with Federal financial aid requirements if the Coronavirus impacts a student or a campus.