This photo illustration shows a visa stamp on a foreign passport in Los Angeles on June 6, 2020. - The United States said July…
This photo illustration shows a visa stamp on a foreign passport in Los Angeles on June 6, 2020. - The United States said July 6 it would not allow foreign students to remain in the country if all of their classes are moved online in the fall over the…

Federal guidance for international students enrolled in U.S. universities is likely to remain the same for Spring semester 2021 regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, an ICE spokesperson announced. 

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) federal guidance, issued in March 2020, allows international students with F or M student visas to take their courses online without jeopardizing their immigration status.  

Normally, international students must be in the U.S. when studying to maintain the status of their student visas. Because of the pandemic, international students who were enrolled in March 2020 have been allowed to continue their studies online with U.S. institutions. 

ICE has not released official COVID-19 guidance for the spring semester on their website, but international education organizations and institutions say the status will remain the same and that is what they are advising students. 

FILE - Masked students walk through the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Sept. 10, 2020. …

If the international student guidance officially continues into the Spring 2021 semester, here’s what it may mean to current and prospective international students at U.S. higher education institutions. 

What this means for existing students  

Continuing international students who held valid nonimmigrant student visas on March 9, 2020 may continue to take their course load online whether inside the United States or abroad. These students will be able to maintain their immigration status as long as they enroll in a full course load.  

Students who were actively enrolled at a U.S. university on March 9, 2020 but took online courses while outside of the United States may re-enter the U.S. even if their university has converted to a fully online model.  

However, international students who were newly admitted after March 9, 2020 — mostly freshmen — may not take a full course load online and must take at least one in-person class. 

What this means for new international students  

Newly admitted international students for the Spring 2021 semester who are in the United States and hold valid student visas may enroll in 100% online courses as long as they do not leave before their Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) records are activated.  

SEVIS is the web-based system the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses to maintain information on SEVP-certified schools, F-1 and M-1 students who come to the United States to attend those schools, according to the ICE website.  

Unlike students who have been enrolled since March 2020, new international students who are outside the U.S. and wish to enter with an initial Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” may not take a full course load online. They can only enter the U.S. if they can obtain a student visa and enroll in at least one in-person course.  

FILE - San Diego State University campus is shown after California State University system announced the fall 2020 semester will be online during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Diego, California, U.S., May 13, 2020.

If the school is operating 100% online, school officials are not allowed to issue a Form I-20 for a student in new or initial status who is outside of the United States.  

COVID-19 and Spring 2021  

As the United States continues to grapple with COVID-19, U.S. universities and colleges are mostly continuing their 2020 guidelines into the new year.  

Prior to the SEVP guidance extension into Spring 2021, the American Council on Education issued a multi-association letter on December 4, 2020, urging the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to issue a COVID-19 guidance for international students and visitors for the Spring 2021 semester.  However, ICE has not yet posted an official COVID-19 guidance document for the spring semester.

In Fall 2020, international student enrollment at U.S. higher education institutions dropped by 16% because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a joint report by the Institute of International Education and nine partner higher education associations.