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Students protested in Houston Hall against a visit to campus by former ICE director Thomas Homan this January.

Credit: Chase Sutton

International students will be prohibited from staying in the United States if taking an entirely online course load at their university this fall, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Monday. Penn, however, criticizes the order and commits to helping its students continue their studies in the United States. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Penn, like dozens of universities across the nation, has adopted a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction for fall 2020. Although courses with less than 25 students are allowed to have in-person instruction, many departments and professors are already opting for strictly online learning — leaving students with limited options to take in-person classes in the fall.

International Student and Scholar Services Director Rodolfo Altamirano wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that ISSS is working with University schools and departments, as well as its partners in the Ivy League and the U.S. government, to gain further clarification on the announcement. ISSS will provide information as soon as possible, he wrote. 

“Penn is currently assessing the situation and is prepared to support international students in fulfilling all of the necessary requirements to maintain a valid immigration status,” Altamirano wrote.

Foreign students attending a school with a hybrid model are allowed to take the minimum number of online classes required to stay on track in their degree program, ICE guidelines stated. The policy applies to non-immigrant students who have F-1 and M-1 visas, which allow students to enroll in full-time academic programs and in vocational or non-academic programs, respectively. 

Those attending schools following a hybrid model, like Penn, will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online, according to ICE. Through the Form I-20, these schools must certify to the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program that its program is not completely online and that the student is not taking an entirely online course load in the fall if they are to remain in the U.S.

"Penn is deeply disappointed by the most recent announcement that the federal government will not extend the online course maximum waiver that it put into place this spring," University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to the DP. "The educational requirements for international students should be the same as for domestic students – not higher or different in any way."

After hundreds of U.S. universities transitioned to virtual instruction in early spring, ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program implemented a temporary exemption that permitted international students to continue their studies online and maintain their non-immigrant status. Typically, F-1 students are permitted to take only one online or remote class that counts toward a full course of study during each semester.

The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to international students who are enrolled in schools that are fully online for fall 2020, and students currently in the country will be required to leave the United States or transfer to another school with in-person instruction.

International students have expressed uncertainty about whether they will return to campus in August due to difficulties obtaining visa appointments, global travel restrictions, and increasing coronavirus cases in the United States. In mid-April, Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda sent an email to remind incoming international students of the option to take a gap year and join the Class of 2025. 

MacCarthy wrote that the new guidelines risk both the status of international students and the United States’ standing as a leader in higher education.

"The United States government should be doing everything it can to welcome international students to its shores, and should be working as a partner with colleges and universities during this challenging pandemic, not sowing chaos in the lives of committed and dedicated students by continually changing the rule book governing their status," MacCarthy wrote.

Penn had 5,333 international students enrolled in fall 2019.

As international students plan for fall 2020, a growing number of courses have announced plans for online-only learning.

All writing seminar classes at Penn, which have a maximum number of 16 students per section, will be conducted online. Nursing courses, with the exception of labs and clinicals, will be taught remotely as well. In the past week, the Math Department also announced that all calculus courses will proceed virtually, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at Annenberg Felicity Paxton emailed majors and prospective majors that it is highly likely all fall Communication classes will be online. 

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