The Trump administration this week released new guidelines for international students in the U.S., stating that students taking exclusively online courses at U.S. institutions this fall will have to return to their home countries.
The decision, which reversed the policies regarding online coursework that had been in place for the spring and summer semesters due to COVID-19, has left students and schools scrambling for solutions.
All the while, these same schools are rushing to figure out what their fall semesters will look like, and to put policies in place to keep the disease at bay when students return.
Experts say the new policy is, at least for the moment, frustratingly murky in some areas. But here’s how it might affect Marylanders.
What does this mean for foreign students studying in Maryland?
Students attending institutions that are only holding classes online — like Harvard and MIT — are not permitted to remain in the United States to complete their coursework. Those two universities filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday challenging the new Trump administration rule.
Most major Maryland institutions, though, plan to offer mixtures of in-person and online instruction this fall. International students attending these colleges and universities cannot take their entire course load online and still remain in the U.S., the guidance issued from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program states.
But simply taking one in-person class may not be enough for those students to obtain the certification they need, said Sheela Murthy, founder and president of the Murthy Law Firm, an Owings Mills-based immigration firm.
”They’re saying ‘We need you to do as many in-person classes as you can in order to maintain your F-1 status as a full time student or vocational student in the United States,” said Murthy, who also sits on the boards of trustees at Maryland Institute College of Art and Stevenson University. “But they haven’t said how many classes or how many credits hours that should equate to.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to comment Wednesday, citing the pending litigation, but the policy on their website requires students to take “the minimum number of online classes.”
At the University of Maryland, College Park, the state’s flagship university, officials have announced that any courses with more than 50 students will be held online, meaning students could conceivably end up with a fully online course load. About 80% of Maryland’s courses will likely be online, the school announced this week.
Schools like Maryland and Johns Hopkins University have also floated moving to online-only classes mid-semester if there is a resurgence in COVID-19 cases this fall, meaning international students may have to leave the country or transfer to a school offering in-person instruction.
Students who remain in the U.S. despite only taking courses online could face removal proceedings. And while it’s relatively unlikely that these students would actually face such proceedings, Murthy said, many would rather leave voluntarily than take that risk.
“They’re trying to scare people,” she said.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, said he’s heard from lots of people concerned about the rule, especially after his Twitter thread about it received tens of thousands of retweets.
”I’ve gotten so many calls from friends and from people who know others who would be affected, who are worried that this might mean that students for whom the United States is the only safe place they’ve ever lived in could have to return to places where they would be unable to get the education and the safety that they need,” he said.
All the while, uncertainties linger. It’s unclear whether the rule will apply to students studying in K-12 schools using F-1 visas, although it likely does, Reichlin-Melnick said. And it’s unclear whether universities would be allowed to create “token classes” for international students that allow them to remain stateside.
It’s also unclear whether students with F-1 visas would be able to remain or return to the states for optional practical training, a type of temporary employment authorization available for eligible F-1 students, Murthy said.
What’s more, the official rule, which could answer some of the remaining questions, hasn’t been released yet, Reichlin-Melnick said. Court challenges might force ICE to pump the brakes in the meantime.
What does this mean for Maryland universities?
Monday’s announcement from ICE could prove financially costly for colleges and universities in Maryland and across the country that are already facing steep losses due to the pandemic.
It could mean lost tuition revenue, but it could also be burdensome in other ways, experts said.
Universities hosting international students on campus must submit their fall semester plans to the Student Exchange Visitor Program by Aug. 1. They must also quickly update and issue the necessary certification for international students, called I-20 forms, given the new requirements.
This could be challenging for schools, Murthy said, especially those that are still ironing out which courses they will offer online versus in-person. The University of Maryland, for instance, doesn’t plan to issue its finalized course listings until next week.
This timeline could be especially challenging for the Maryland schools with the greatest numbers of international students. The University System of Maryland, which includes about a dozen campuses in the state, has nearly 4,000 foreign undergraduates, 38% of whom attend University of Maryland, and more than 5,000 foreign graduate students, 66% of whom attend Maryland.
Johns Hopkins University, another large draw of international students, has more than 4,800 from 48 countries.
How have Maryland universities responded?
Plenty of Maryland schools have issued statements condemning the new Trump administration rule, and pledging to help international students stay in the U.S.
Hopkins called it “draconian.” The University System of Maryland called it “dismaying.”
“The USM will do everything necessary to make sure that our international students remain qualified to continue and complete their programs,” the system’s statement read.
In an email sent to University of Maryland students, President Darryll Pines said he’s directing university officials “to seek academic solutions that ensure more in-person instruction, including the use of independent research, discipline seminar courses and other courses that offer in-person instruction to our international students.”
As questions abound, local professors have stepped up to help students.
“Anyone at University of Maryland needing an in person class, I AM AVAILABLE to do an independent study,” tweeted Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor, Monday evening.
In a phone interview, Fisher said she’s hopeful she won’t have to offer the independent studies at all. It seems possible the university could offer additional in-person classes for international students, or at least fit them into in-person classes already on the books, she said. But she said her door is open to international students who need her help — and want to learn about her research on American democracy.
And she isn’t alone. At a recent faculty meeting for her department, for instance, several faculty members volunteered their services for in-person classes for international students, Fisher said.
Meanwhile, Fisher’s tweet has meant lots of extra emails in her inbox from concerned students.
“We have so much anxiety in the world right now, and I wanted to make sure that the students had some certainty even as the university was trying to figure out how to respond,” she said.