The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in most schools 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, because of the general rule limiting the amount of distance education that can be counted towards a "full course of study."

The F-1, M-1, and J-1 Distance Education Limits

SEVP 2021-2022 COVID-19 Guidance for F-1 Schools and Students

SEVP's guidance for the 2021-2022 academic year refers to its March 2020 COVID-19 guidance, which was based on the following documents under the agreement between the parties in the Harvard/M.I.T. case, which returned Fall 2020 guidance to the March 2020 policy "status quo" that existed prior to SEVP's rescinded July 6, 2020 guidance. ICE's master page of COVID-19 guidance contains links to the below SEVP COVID-19 guidance under "Nonimmigrant Students and SEVP-Certified Schools." In its updated April 26, 2021 Frequently Asked Questions for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19, SEVP states that it is continuing the March 2020 guidance for the 2021-2022 academic year.

  1. March 9, 2020 policy directive, Broadcast Message 2003-01: COVID-19 and Potential Procedural Adaptations for F and M Students. Provides guidance on potential procedural adaptations for F and M nonimmigrant students, including adaptations to online coursework policies. This is the key document setting forth the "March 2020" guidance that now continues in effect for the 2021-2022 academic year.

  2. March 12, 2020 Optional Coronavirus School Reporting Template. Optional template for reporting school COVID-19 procedural changes to SEVP. The template states, "Schools are encouraged to provide additional details regarding their emergency operations plans beyond the questions detailed in this template." NAFSA note: The link to this template now contains a (Mar. 2021) updated date. However, SEVP has not yet updated the template to read "Fall 2021."

  3. March 13, 2020 scenarios. COVID-19: Guidance for SEVP Stakeholders. SEVP follow-up to its March 9, 2020 guidance, identifying three common scenarios related to emergency procedures implemented by SEVP-certified schools: 1) A school completely closes and does not have online courses or other alternate learning procedures; 2) A school temporarily stops in-person classes but implements online or other alternate learning procedures and the nonimmigrant student remains in the United States; and 3) A school temporarily stops in-person classes but implements online or other alternate learning procedures and the nonimmigrant student departs the United States.

  4. July 24, 2020 broadcast message. Broadcast Message 2007-02: Follow-up: ICE continues March guidance for fall school term. On July 24, 2020, SEVP posted a broadcast message to clarify certain aspects of applying the March 2020 "status quo" guidance in the context of the Fall 2020 term.

  5. August 7, 2020 FAQs. SEVP posted a revised set of COVID-19 FAQs dated August 7, 2020 at www.ice.gov/doclib/coronavirus/covid19faq.pdf, which merged its July 24 "Clarifying Questions" and its July 15 FAQs into a single document, revising some of the FAQs "to reflect the fall 2020 semester," and to archive and rescind certain FAQs that were "specific to the spring or summer semester."

  6. August 7, 2020 broadcast message. Broadcast Message 2008-01: New Process: Reporting School Procedural Adaptations to SEVP. SEVP changed the email address for submitting school COVID-19 operational plans and updates, as well as several other particulars regarding the process.

  7. April 26, 2021 broadcast message. Broadcast Message 2104-05: ICE Continues March 2020 Guidance for the 2021-22 Academic Year. "The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) will extend the guidance originally issued in March 2020 for the 2021-22 academic year. This guidance enables schools and students to engage in distance learning in excess of regulatory limits due to the continuing public health concerns created by COVID-19. The March 2020 guidance applies to nonimmigrant students who were actively enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9, 2020, and are otherwise complying with the terms of their nonimmigrant status, whether from inside the United States or abroad. A summary of the March 2020 guidance is available below. Significantly, there are no changes to the original guidance, which will remain in effect during the 2021-22 academic year."

The above must be read in the context of SEVP's updated April 26, 2021 Frequently Asked Questions for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19, which for convenience are transcribed below. Gaps continue to exist between the March 2020 policy and the 2020-2021 academic year reality. See the following NAFSA resources that discuss this.

SEVP's COVID-19 FAQs for the 2021-2022 Academic Year

Read SEVP's April 26, 2021 COVID-19 Guidance for the 2021-2022 academic year in detail. Refer to the SEVP PDF document on the SEVP website when citing or otherwise relying on the wording of the SEVP guidance.

Things that are clear from SEVP guidance

  • New students now outside the United States in initial SEVIS status with an I-20 issued for Initial Attendance cannot enter the United States to begin a course of study that is 100% online.
  • New students now outside the United States in initial SEVIS status with an I-20 issued for Initial Attendance can enter the United States to begin a "hybrid program with some in-person learning requirement."
  • Continuing students who were in Active SEVIS status on March 9, 2020 and remain in Active status now with an I-20 with Issue Reason "Continued Attendance" can pursue up to and including a 100% online course of study with their SEVIS records kept in in Active status, whether they are in the United States, remain outside the U.S., or wish to return to the U.S. to pursue that course of study here.
  • Students now inside the United States who were in Active SEVIS status on March 9, 2020 but are now in initial SEVIS status with an I-20 that indicates Transfer Pending or Change of Level can have their records Registered in SEVIS to change their SEVIS status to Active to begin the new level of study or study at the transfer-in school. "Transfer students inside the United States must report to a DSO at their transfer-in school in person or using electronic means within 15 days of their program start date (8 CFR 214.2(f)(8)(ii)(C)). The DSO must complete the transfer process and register the student as Active in SEVIS. Students should follow the guidelines the school provides to all its F and M students related to COVID-19."
  • SEVP March 2020 guidance articulated in Broadcast Message 2003-01 applied generally to all "SEVP-certified Schools and F and M Students," so schools are able to adapt their programs for English language students and programs as well.

J-1 students

Department of State Exchange Visitor Program FAQs at https://j1visa.state.gov/covid-19/ provide generally that a J-1 college and university student who is currently in Active SEVIS status may continue to take take online/hybrid classes and that exchange visitors who were in Active status as of March 11, 2020 can continue to participate 100% in on-line/virtual programs whether from inside the United States or abroad. Key FAQs include:

Current Program FAQs:

ON-LINE V. IN-PERSON LEARNING: Can currently active exchange visitors participating in the Teacher, Professor, Secondary School Student, or College/University Student categories of BridgeUSA teach/take online/hybrid classes or must all courses be in person?

With respect to exchange visitors who are currently in “active” status in SEVIS, the Department understands that program sponsors have adjusted program activities to meet their obligations to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of their exchange participants in the context of the pandemic. In keeping with its March 11, 2020 message (https://j1visa.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/3.11.2020_Exchange-Visitor-Program-Sponsor-Guidance.pdf), the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs (ECA) continues to ask sponsors and exchange visitors to consult with host academic institutions to find alternative ways to maintain program objectives, including online classes or other arrangements, while preventing unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. A temporary modification along these lines of a current exchange participant's program due to exigent circumstances beyond a sponsor’s or host entity’s control does not undermine the program’s original consistency with the regulations.

ON-LINE V. IN-PERSON EXCHANGES: Can exchange visitors who were in “Active” status on March 11, 2020, and are otherwise complying with the terms of their nonimmigrant status, whether from inside the United States or abroad, continue to participate 100% in on-line/virtual programs?

With respect to exchange visitors who were in “Active” status when the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent last spring, ECA understands that program sponsors adjusted program activities to meet their obligations to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of their exchange participants. In keeping with ECA's message on March 11, 2020 (https://j1visa.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/3.11.2020_Exchange-Visitor-Program-Sponsor-Guidance.pdf), ECA continues to ask sponsors and exchange visitors to consult with host organizations to pursue ways to maintain program objectives, including online classes or other arrangements, while preventing unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. A temporary modification along these lines of a current exchange participant's program due to exigent circumstances beyond a sponsor’s or host entity’s control does not undermine the program’s original consistency with the regulations.

Future Program FAQs:

ON-LINE V. IN-PERSON LEARNING: Can applicants wishing to participate in the Teacher, Professor, Secondary School Student, or College/University Student categories of BridgeUSA teach/take online/hybrid classes or must all courses be in person?

The purpose of BridgeUSA is to facilitate in-person exchanges. Regulations governing the academic categories anticipate in-person interaction between exchange visitors and their American counterparts (see, e.g., 22 CFR §§62.25(a), 62.23(a), and 62.24(a) requiring participation "at" or "in" academic institutions). While these regulations do allow the Department to provide some flexibility in permitting a limited amount of virtual training, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs reminds sponsors that BridgeUSA generally requires programs to foster the exchange of ideas between exchange visitors and their American counterparts. Thus academic institutions should have reinstated partial to full-time in-person classes or be able to meet other formal in-person requirements on the date they agree to host exchange visitors.

ON-LINE V. IN-PERSON TRAINING: Can applicants wishing to participate in the Intern or Trainee categories of BridgeUSA participate in online/hybrid training programs or must all training be in person?

The purpose of BridgeUSA is to facilitate in-person exchanges. Regulations governing the Intern and Trainee categories anticipate in-person interaction between exchange visitors and their American counterparts:  “Such training and internship programs are also intended to increase participants' understanding of American culture and society and to enhance Americans' knowledge of foreign cultures and skills through an open interchange of ideas between participants and their American associates.” (22 CFR §62.22(b)(1)(i))  While these regulations do allow the Department to provide some flexibility in permitting a limited amount of virtual training, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs reminds sponsors that BridgeUSA generally requires programs to foster the exchange of ideas between exchange visitors and their American counterparts. Thus, host organizations should have reinstated partial to full-time in-person training or be able to meet other formal in-person requirements on the date they agree to host exchange visitors.

Regarding reporting of online accommodations, the Exchange Visitor Program's March 17, 2020 message stated:

"In accordance with monitoring requirements, we ask that if your institution is moving towards an online environment, please report it to [email protected] using the Incident Report Form if you have not already done so. OPA is aware that as some sponsors move their operations to an online environment,their institutions are concurrently working on measures to decrease the density of their campuses (including moving exchange visitors out of university housing). If your institution is taking measures to relocate exchange visitors from campus housing, please detail this in your Incident Report and explain the options and/or resources you are providing to exchange visitors in terms of alternative housing. Please use this opportunity to remind your exchange visitors of the requirement for them to report to you within ten calendar days any changes in their telephone numbers, email addresses, actual and current U.S. addresses, and site of activity [22 CFR 62.10(d)(3)]. Please update SEVIS when necessary to reflect accurate program information including current U.S. address and site(s) of activity.

The Incident Report Form is available on the Academic Program Sponsors page on the j1visa.state.gov website.

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.