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Online learning, single rooms in hotels as dorms and staggered scheduling are just some of the ideas in motion for 2020’s fall semester.

USA TODAY

Raven Liu always thought that she had a chance, however slim it was, to travel from Beijing to the University of Southern California to attend her first semester in person, even during a pandemic.

“It’s meaningless to learn online because I study film production,” the newly enrolled graduate student said. “I can’t collaborate with my teammates for shooting, and my first year of production courses can be wasted.”

Liu booked the dormitory and even researched how to travel to the U.S. by circumventing travel restrictions. By last Friday, though, it became clear that her travel plans were off. That’s when Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that newly enrolled international students, such as first-year undergrads and graduate students, will not be allowed to enter the U.S. if their classes are taught fully online. The rule doesn’t apply to students who already had been pursuing a degree in the U.S.

Years of study ‘wasted’: International students fret as ICE ruling could force them out of US

The guidance is the latest development in a saga that has left international students and their institutions scrambling to firm up fall plans. Earlier this month, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued President Donald Trump’s administration over a new policy that would have forced all international students attending U.S. colleges out of the country if their classes were conducted fully online. ICE quickly rescinded the policy amid the backlash.

But now, again, Liu is preparing to take online classes with a 15-hour time difference. Her school scrapped its original plan to provide in-person sessions for fall courses as California’s coronavirus cases set record highs in mid-July. As a graduate student starting a new program, ICE’s guidance last week means she won’t be allowed in the country.

As the resurgence of coronavirus pushes some schools to put courses fully online, the latest ruling leaves new international students like Liu with two options: take online classes in their home country or defer the fall semester.

College student visas: Trump admin bars new foreign students taking online classes in US

Roughly 80,000, or 30%, of new international students will not come to the U.S. to study in the fall, according to Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education. This number is likely to grow due to ICE’s recent policies and visa complications.

Most of these students prefer deferring the fall semester to taking online instruction, Farnsworth said, adding pressure to universities’ financial stress.

However, some schools have decided to brace for a semester without new international students. In a dean’s message before ICE confirmed its guidance last week, Harvard urged new international students to stay in their home countries, saying the university will not offer in-person instruction to enable these students to enter the U.S.

“Given the unpredictability of current government policies and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, this path could jeopardize both our international students’ ability to enter or leave the United States in the future and our community’s health,” Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana said.

ICE’s guidance is expected to continue through the fall. Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney based in Memphis, Tennessee, said challenging the new rule in court would be more difficult for schools compared with the Harvard-MIT lawsuit.

But ICE’s policy is only one of the numerous barriers that new international students must overcome to enter the U.S. for schooling. As a result, many have already given up the hope of getting visas before the fall semester starts.

“The problem was there weren’t too many students that actually had visas in hand,” Siskind said. “Most consulates didn’t start reopening up until July 15 and they’re only doing it slowly.”

Every time Sukhmandeep Singh, an incoming freshman at Tennessee Technological University, tried to schedule a visa appointment in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the system showed no slots were available for June and July. The earliest available date now is Oct. 8, he said, while visa appointments in other U.S. consulates in India are fully booked until February 2021.

“Even after the reopening of consulates, I still have to wait for a long time because of the backlogs,” Singh said.

Even though Tennessee Tech is offering in-person courses, Singh has deferred his fall semester and will work for his father’s business. He did not want to risk losing money on tuition if his student visa application is denied. He has been denied a visitor’s visa before without apparent reasons, he said.

Some students are pausing their academic plans for fear of the resurgence of coronavirus in the U.S. Xue’er Lu, a Chinese student who should be studying at the University of California, Berkeley, for a journalism graduate degree this fall, was worried about her visa in April because she is from Wuhan, the very first epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Now the U.S has emerged as the global epicenter of the pandemic.

“What I learned from the experience is that changes come faster than plans,” Lu said.

Lu deferred her studies at UC Berkeley for a year. She is considering applying for graduate programs in the U.K. for fear that the pandemic will remain uncontrolled in the U.S.

Despite the mounting health risks and visa difficulties, some students still dreamed of studying in the U.S. the next year. Sopran Lamri, a French student who will be a junior at the Paris-Saclay University, planned to study at San Francisco State University on a one-year exchange program this fall. However, he cannot enter the U.S. through the end of the year due to the Trump administration’s recent restriction on visiting scholars’ visas.

“I had the chance to be the only student in my university to have been chosen to study in the U.S. It was therefore unthinkable for me to let my dream fly away,” Lamri said.

But before he realizes his “American dream” in spring, Lamri with a nine-hour time difference. He feels disheartened but compelled to carry on.

“I was shocked to see that these policies treat international students as just foreigners instead of as assets. Having students of different nationalities promotes cultural, economic and linguistic exchanges. They are a real asset to the U.S.,” the 20-year-old said.

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