Tallahassee, FL - Thousands of current and prospective international students in Florida are facing uncertainty about their immigration status, as COVID-19 could continue to disrupt the higher-education system through the fall semester.
Foreign students usually are required to take a certain amount of in-person classes to meet visa requirements. But the coronavirus pandemic prompted universities to shift classes online. Many institutions plan to keep some courses online when they reopen campuses in the fall.
Adding further complications, global travel restrictions may make it difficult for international students to obtain visas or book flights to the U.S. in time for the first day of the fall semester.
“I think it would be very foolish to not expect a decline in enrollment. ... I think it could be ranging from ‘not great’ to ‘catastrophic’ for American international student enrollments, and I think universities are prepared for that,” University of Florida International Center Dean Leonardo A. Villalón told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Foreign student enrollment will be affected this fall by decisions made at the university level and by actions taken by the federal government, which has temporarily shut down U.S. Consulates abroad and suspended processing visas in March.
"If visas are issued and flights are available, we anticipate international students will want to come. If they come, universities need to be ready to have the courses necessary for them to be legal,” Villalón said.
As universities plot a path to reopen campuses in the fall, some of the state’s major institutions have already indicated that they are planning a “hybrid” model of instruction that would mix online and in-person classes.
While foreign students typically are required to take a certain number of classes in person each semester, the Department of Homeland Security in March relaxed the rules to allow students to continue their studies remotely after COVID-19 caused nationwide campus shutdowns.
But the federal exception has not been extended to cover the fall semester yet.
Under current federal guidelines, international students who were enrolled in the spring and summer will be able to study in the U.S. in the fall and follow “whatever format universities deem appropriate” during the pandemic, according to Villalón.
But the situation could be different for foreign students who haven’t started attending university classes.
New international students will not be able to come to campus and begin online classes or attend a “hybrid” format in the fall semester, Florida State University spokeswoman Amy Farnum Patronis told the News Service on Tuesday. The new students will need to follow federal immigration requirements that require a minimum number of face-to-face classes each semester.
FSU generally receives approximately 400 international students each fall semester, Patronis said.
But with visa issuance on pause, Patronis said the university could see “quite a drop” in the number of international students that arrive on campus in the fall.
“They may begin (the fall semester) online but remain in home countries until the university provides the minimum number of face-to-face classes each student needs to meet immigration requirements,” Patronis said.
Once their visas are processed, international students would be able to come to campus for the spring semester, she said.
Patronis noted that federal immigration regulations have provided “clear guidance” that current FSU international students will be allowed to take “hybrid” instruction in the fall.
University of Central Florida spokeswoman Rachel Williams said the university is helping current and prospective international students navigate a number of issues affecting their education during the pandemic.
“We recognize how especially challenging this situation has been for them and are working to provide support and help them continue their education journey,” she said.
Williams said the university is advising individual students about handling how the “uncertainty of the mode of course instruction for the fall semester may impact some international students.”
The university, however, is asking students to follow travel guidance from their home countries and requirements set by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“SEVP has not issued guidance to international students and schools for the fall semester. We understand international students and schools have questions, and SEVP is actively working to issue guidance, ” the agency wrote in a June 4 update.
While universities help students navigate the fall semester, others continue to help those who need extra assistance following the campus closures in March.
At the University of South Florida, a number of international students have been living in college dorms since the campus shut down, according to USF spokesman Adam Freeman.
Most international students at UF “could not travel that easily back to their home country,” Villalón said.
“Campus services have been significantly reduced, but we have been able to accommodate them with housing and food while they are here,” he added.