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International students whose course loads move online cannot remain in the United States, ICE says

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Officers arrested 271 criminal aliens last week in an enforcement action targeting individuals who pose a threat to public safety and immigration violations. (ICE/Released)

While colleges and universities across the country are considering online courses and other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, federal officials said international students enrolled in programs that moved fully online in the fall will neither get visas nor be allowed to enter the country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, issued a notice stating that international students who are currently in the country must transfer to a college or university with in-person classes or leave the country unless they want to lose their legal status.

“Nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes,” the notice states. “If students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”

The announcement comes as Massachusetts colleges and universities are finalizing their contingency plans to allow students back for the fall semester. Harvard University announced on Monday it is going completely online for the 2020-21 academic year. UMass Amherst’s reopening plan, which was released last week, states it is “highly likely that most, if not all, of their classes will be conducted remotely.

Both universities, for example, do give students the option to participate in classes remotely or on campus, though critics of the ICE announcement say international students could have trouble taking classes in their home countries if they lack stable internet access or are barred from accessing certain websites.

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ICE said international students who hold a nonimmigrant F-1 visa may take at most one class or three credit hours online if they are eligible. Those attending schools that are adopting a “hybrid model” that offers a mix of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than one class but must also certify to SEVP that their programs are not entirely online and that the student doesn’t have a fully online course load that semester.

F-1 student visa holders in English language training programs or vocational students who hold M-1 visas are not exempt, according to ICE.

Colleges and universities that start out with in-person classes but later have to switch to online online classes must notify the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System within 10 days of the change.

Massachusetts has recorded 7,983 deaths and 104,659 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, but the rate of new cases and deaths has slowed since the surge in mid-April. Massachusetts reported 15 new coronavirus deaths Monday and 157 new COVID-19 cases.

Massachusetts moved to Phase 3, but Gov. Charlie Baker said he expects the third phase will last much longer. Phase 4 does not start until after a vaccine is available.

In the mean time, colleges and universities are grappling with bringing students back as health experts warn of a possible resurgence in the fall.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told the Washington Post in April that a second wave of the coronavirus will be much worse as it will likely coincide with the start of flu season.

Massachusetts is home to more than 100 colleges, including elite private institutions such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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© 2020 MassLive.com