NAIS and TABS Statement on the Change in SEVP Rules for International Students

UPDATE: NAIS released the following statement before the Trump administration voluntarily agreed to rescind the policy as part of a settlement on July 14, 2020. Schools should now follow the guidelines that were part of the temporary ruling announced in March, which allows students to maintain their F-1 status whether their schools offer fully online, hybrid, or in-person education.

More than 30,000 international students from 180 countries study at 750 of the elementary, middle, and high schools that belong to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS). These students are valued members of their school and local communities. The presence of learners from around the world adds diversity and dynamism to our nation’s educational communities, helping U.S. students develop the cross-cultural skills necessary for success in work and life. International students often become cultural ambassadors, improving relations among peoples around the world. Simply put, international students are good for America.  

An updated rule announced by the Student Exchange and Visitors Program (SEVP) on July 6, 2020, threatens to disrupt the experience of thousands of international students and would irreparably harm the independent schools that host them. This rule changes the exemption policy approved in the spring, when international students were temporarily permitted to continue their academic courses fully online while maintaining their F-1 visa status. The ruling was expressly designed to last for the duration of the ongoing pandemic. The recently updated rule, released abruptly and without a well-reasoned basis, contravenes the intention of the original rule. More importantly, it is throwing schools and students’ lives into chaos, forcing them to jump through new procedural hoops and potentially change their back-to-school plans just weeks before the start of the academic year.

In addition to requiring schools to notify SEVP of their plans within days and to issue new documentation to all international students who will be able to continue their in-person or hybrid education this fall, this rule would require international students to leave the U.S. if their schools move to entirely online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Conversely, in cases where their U.S.-based schools are opening in-person, international students forced to remain in their home countries for reasons beyond their control face the prospect of losing their active visa status. This could make it more difficult for them to return to the U.S. when they are free to do so, potentially undermining the enrollment health of independent schools.

All of the schools in our respective associations are eager to return to in-person learning as soon as prudence permits. Indeed, the lion’s share have announced their intentions to regather this fall, subject to local, state, and federal mandates and guidelines. For schools so committed to the transformational power of strong relationships to enhance learning and growth, that should come as no surprise. Yet, schools must retain the flexibility to pivot to entirely online instruction if health considerations warrant doing so. The updated rule creates undue pressure on independent schools to eschew even relatively short-term intervals of entirely online instruction. The government should not penalize schools for instituting interim academic solutions that may be necessary to mitigate risks to vulnerable children, teachers, staff, and neighborhoods.

For independent schools, this rule complicates months of preparation based on careful research and consultation with medical experts and public health authorities. School plans to deliver high-quality educational experiences while safeguarding health were based on the assumption that SEVP would continue the temporary exemptions for online study through the fall. At a time of unprecedented disruption and hardship, the rule change creates unnecessary stress for school leaders, for teachers, and for students and their families. Amid the uncertainty created by this arbitrary rule change, international families may choose to forgo sending their children to school in the United States. Schools may then lose these students permanently.   

International students at independent schools contribute more than $800 million to the American economy in tuition payments alone. Their living expenses further enrich local economies. But their presence benefits America far beyond their economic contributions. Many international students are among the most promising scholars in their home countries. They may initially journey here to advance their studies, but they often contribute immeasurably to their American communities. The intellectual dynamism of the world’s best and brightest has sparked countless innovations that benefit our nation. Preventing international students from studying in the U.S.—or creating needlessly burdensome obstacles—may damage America’s capacity to develop breakthrough ideas for years to come.

The National Association of Independent Schools and The Association of Boarding Schools call on the SEVP and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to do what’s best for children, for schools, and for America: Reinstate the temporary exemptions allowing international students to maintain their F-1 visa status, regardless of whether a school program is online or on-campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.