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Higher Ed Has Special Reporting Procedures Regarding Its Foreign Students Due to COVID-19

Recognizing that many higher education institutions are temporarily closing its campuses and switching to online classes, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have issued Guidance Documents, Frequently Asked Questions, and a Reporting Template to guide higher education officials in staying in compliance with the applicable rules.

Those documents can be found here: under “Nonimmigrant Students and SEVP-Certified Schools”. This e-alert will summarize how to handle common scenarios. Most importantly, if schools do not properly report procedural changes to SEVP within 10 business days, they can lose their SEVP-certified status, which means they will lose their ability to enroll foreign students.

Online Classes: Most if not all colleges and universities have stopped in-classroom classes, and, instead, are requiring students to complete online classes. Foreign students can complete online classes here or abroad. If they travel abroad, they may have difficulty returning to the US due to: (1) travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, (2) the unavailability of visa services at US Consulates and Embassies abroad. Regardless of where the online classes are completed, schools should maintain foreign students’ SEVP record in Active status as long as they are making normal progress in their course of study. Contrary to the regular rules, all online classes will count toward a full course of study while the COVID-19 emergency is in effect. Designated School Officials (DSO’s) must report to SEVP: (1) the mode and classroom setting (computer lab, students with laptops connected to Wi-Fi, etc.), (2) how the school will provide oversight of the students, (3) the names of the programs of study and classes that will be taught online, and (4) the projected length of time for online instruction. The SEVP report must be emailed to the SEVP Response Center within 10 business days of the decision to initiate online classes. Normally, foreign students are only allowed a 5-month absence before losing their Active status. For foreign students completing their online courses abroad, that 5-month period is waived.

Full Course of Study where Some Classes Not Offered Online: Schools may not offer every class online during the COVID-19 crisis. Some classes are not amenable to online instruction and others may not have available instructors, for example. Where a foreign student is enrolled in a class that is not offered online, SEVP will temporarily waive the “full course of study” requirement. DSO’s must report the change in course load and reasoning to SEVP within 10 business days of the change.

Temporary Closure, with No Online Classes: If the school decides to temporarily close and not offer online classes, F-1 and M-1 students can retain Active status in SEVP as long as they intend to return to classes once they resume. The DOS must report the change within 10 business days.

Moving Out of Dormitories: Some colleges and universities are closing their dormitories, leaving students to find alternate housing. This can be difficult for foreign students who may not have any family or friends in the US with which they can live. Schools should consider providing real estate or housing search help to foreign students. Designated School Officials (DSO’s) must report to SEVP any address change for foreign students within 10 business days. 

CPT Completed Abroad: Many students engage in Curricular Practical Training (CPT) to earn money, learn practical work skills in their field while still in school, and (3) network with professionals in their field to help with job placement after graduation. Foreign students can complete their CPT employment abroad during the COVID-19 crisis, if: (1) they are enrolled in a program of study in which CPT is integral to the program of study, (2) their DSO authorized CPT before the CPT start date, and (3) either the US employer has an office abroad, or the US employer can evaluate the students’ attainment of learning objectives electronically. Any change in the authorized CPT plan must be reported to SEVP within 10 business days. 

Extending Program End Date to Accommodate Graduation Ceremonies: Many schools have switched to online classes, and foreign seniors have returned home to complete their studies. Unfortunately, schools are not permitted to extend program end dates on the Form I-20 to accommodate graduation ceremonies delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, foreign students can: (1) enter the US during the 60-day grace period after their program end date, (2) enter in another immigration status (ex: tourist visa), or (3) if they are continuing on to another US degree, enter the US with an I-20 showing the pending change of educational level.

New Students: For students who have not yet started their US schooling, schools should delay their start date, and the foreign students should remain in their home countries. DSO’s should issue a new, initial Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. 

Students Exhibiting Symptoms of COVID-19: Active students in the United States exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 are eligible to receive a medically reduced course load, with proper documentation substantiating the medical need. DSO’s should register the student in SEVP for a medically reduced or no course load. If the student is abroad, DSO’s should advise the student to remain abroad until they can substantiate with documentation from a healthcare provider that they are able to resume a full course of study. CDC guidelines regarding contagiousness and travel restrictions should also be heeded in this circumstance. The 5-month absence rule is extended for students unable to return to the US due to COVID-19 symptoms.

Electronic I-20’s: Due to COVID-19, DSO’s are permitted to digitally sign or scan ink signatures on I-20’s and email them to foreign students.

Reporting by DSO: Each change made to procedures as a result of COVID-19 has to be reported to SEVP within 10 business days. Only the DSO can report the change. Reports should be emailed to with the subject line “COVID-19 School Operations [School Code],” and, in addition to describing the changes, the email must include the school name and all physical locations affected by the changes. The DSO should receive an email from SEVP acknowledging receipt of the report.

The response to the COVID-19 emergency is fluid. Please consult CDC, SEVP, DHS, ICE, and immigration counsel for the latest updates and practices.


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