Coronavirus Protocols for International Students Studying in the US: Steps to Take

InGenius Prep

Coronavirus Protocols for International Students Studying in the US: Steps to Take

The outbreak of the Coronavirus continues to impact various communities and groups of people, particularly, international students studying in the US. As travel bans are placed and schools have to make quick decisions about the impact on campus, you might have a lot of questions in mind surrounding your travel plans and resulting restrictions on your visa. 

Of course, it’s okay to have a lot of questions amongst the commotion. But as you leave campus, it’s important that you direct these questions to the right people so that you know which rules apply to you so that you can return to campus when it reopens. To guide you through figuring out different aspects of the changes, we’ve outlined the next steps to take as your school closes, how the sudden closure can impact your visa and I-20, and ways to continue working on your activities once you’re safe and settled down a bit.

Impact of School Closure and Travel Policies

Many private high schools in the US have asked international students to return to their home countries. If you’re an international student studying at a private high school in the US, naturally, this is a very stressful situation. First, listen to your school and ask any questions to understand the institution-specific policy, as well as the protocol that will best help support your case.

If your school believes it’ll be best for you to remain in the country, and you have family or friends in the US you can stay with, that’s the best option as the new travel policies might impact the chances of you being able to return on time for when school reopens.

In the case that your school is only closing for spring break, and plans to re-open in April, and you plan to travel internationally, you will have to let your school authorities know that you possibly won’t make it back to campus on time due to the travel restrictions. The CDC has placed a ban on foreign nationals who have visited China and Iran within 2 weeks. The list has also been extended to include European nations, and as of this past weekend, the UK. Make sure you know what the regulations are for your specific case.

Information to Verify

As an international student studying in the US, you might have a lot of queries that need clarification. Ask the international student office at your school the following questions as necessary: 

  • When will school start again?
  • Will school resume in-person this school year? Or will school not be in-person until fall semester?
  • When will online classes be held?
  • Will they be live classes on Zoom? Or recordings?
  • If I go back to Asia, would I need to participate in live classes during the night because of the time difference?
  • How will these changes impact my F-1/I-20 student status?
  • Will the school maintain my F-1 record for the remainder of this semester?
  • Would I need to get a travel signature (signed by the school visa/immigration service officer, valid for 1 year, that is required to enter the US) on my I-20, if the last one is older than September 2019?

Try and get a sense of when your school plans to allow students back in-person so that you can plan your time away accordingly. It’s important to clarify any confusion you have at all in regards to your visa, I-20 and travel documents as it would likely play a key role in the tasks you have to get done before you can re-enter the US for your fall classes. 

Impact of Departure on Your F-1 and I-20

You might have a lot of questions about how the early dismissal of in-person classes and transition to online courses may affect the visa status of international students studying in the US. Below, we’ve touched on some of those points as addressed by the US government and school sources:

  • Effect of online classes on I-20 status – If you’ve taken classes this semester and will continue attending the online sessions, your school is supposed to maintain your F-1 SEVIS record as you are technically still an enrolled student this semester. Definitely double check with your international student office.
  • Impact of staying outside the US for 5+ months on your I-20/SEVIS status –  According to the Department of Homeland Security, the five-month rule states that a “student being away from classes or not in status for five months” can result in their record being terminated from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Theoretically, your school’s switch to online classes should not change your SEVIS status as you’re still enrolled and taking classes, just in a different format. Again, verify that this applies for you and your school with the international student office!
  • Impact of being out of the US for 5+ months on your F-1 visa – If your US visa expires before the start of the fall semester, you need to apply for a new F-1 visa before the current one expires. If your F-1 visa lasts through 2020, your school should keep your SEVIS record active as you’re still an enrolled student. The State Department hasn’t made any official statements yet on whether leaving the US due to the coronavirus will be treated differently. So, it’s best to both ask your school’s international student office, as well as the US Consulate or Embassy where you received your current student visa whether you need a new visa to re-enter the US in the fall.

How to Spend the Time Out of School

Finally, as you figure the logistical factors out and hopefully make it safely home or to a relative/friend’s place, you might be wondering how to still find productive ways to continue working on your activities and college application during your time off.  

  • Self-Directed Projects – As international students studying in the US find themselves in isolation, it’s time to figure out how to continue pursuing your extracurriculars. Discuss with other members whether you can expand your current activities to conduct more remote operations and meetings. You might want to set up a website, recorded lecture, or even start a podcast or YouTube channel that discusses topics that in-person events or meetings would generally cover. We’ve got some ideas in this blog, so rack your brain and get creative!
  • Virtual College Tours – You might have wanted to visit colleges this spring, and since that plan is currently out of commission, you’re wondering how to still express your interest towards colleges and ask questions that are on your mind. Check out virtual touring sites such as YouVisit and read student reviews of schools on websites such as Niche and Unigo. This is also a good time to do an in-depth dive into college websites and social media to learn more!
  • Taking Care of Yourself – Of course, it’s extra important during this time to take care of both your physical and mental health. Alongside the usual hand washing protocols, make sure you surround yourself with people you love and spend time on activities that energize you. Do what you need to do to feel better as the confusion continues.

If you’re feeling stressed and anxious about the entire situation, take a deep breath. Once you settle down, find ways to keep in touch with your school community and pursue topics you’re passionate about in your free time. Most importantly, take care of yourself, and prioritize your health and safety.

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