Northeastern is supporting Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston Wednesday against recent federal regulations that would bar international students from legally remaining in the United States if they take classes entirely online this fall.
The new regulations, announced by the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday, require international students whose college or university has moved to a fully online education to either transfer to an institution that offers in-person classes or leave the U.S.
The lawsuit asks for a temporary injunction to prevent the initiation of removal proceedings for international students who stay in the U.S. without taking in-person classes.
“This new guidance from Homeland Security creates chaos for international students and has the effect of weakening American higher education—one of our nation’s signature strengths,” Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, wrote in a statement on Wednesday. “While we believe the hybrid-flexible model we have developed at Northeastern will insulate our international students from the pernicious effects of the new rule, we steadfastly oppose this divisive approach.”
“We support the lawsuit because it affirms our values of inclusion, internationalism, and access. Especially in these difficult times, we cannot relinquish these values,” said Ralph C. Martin II senior vice president and general counsel for Northeastern.
The new rules add to the dilemma facing international students as they decide whether to return to their schools at a time when the U.S. is still struggling to control the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Prior to the new guidance being issued, there was no in-person requirement, because the guidance from spring and summer made it clear that as long as you’re maintaining full-time status you can be online and remote due to the current emergency situation,” said Jigisha Patel, who is the associate general counsel and chief advisor for international and immigration services at Northeastern. “This sudden change is causing unnecessary confusion and high anxiety for many students.”
Until the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, federal regulations allowed international students studying in the U.S. to take just one class online each semester. These regulations were adjusted in March to allow international students to remain in the U.S. legally while studying entirely online as universities across the country shut down in-person teaching in accordance with public health guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that these exemptions would not continue into the fall. International students at universities that are returning to full in-person classes will be allowed to take only one class online. International students at schools adopting a hybrid model, such as Northeastern’s Hybrid NUflex which includes in-person and online, will be allowed to take more than one class online.
“The government’s announcement this week is not acknowledging that the emergency still continues, and the pandemic is still ongoing,” Patel said. “In essence, they are forcing institutions of higher ed to have in-person requirements and to reopen with very little notice.”
More than 13,000 international students attend Northeastern, and they will be able to stay with a combination of in-person and online learning. But many other universities have already announced plans to shift to online learning for the fall semester. This new guidance would force those international students to transfer to a new university with the fall semester only weeks away, or leave the country.
But even if students choose to leave, the coronavirus pandemic has made travel extremely difficult. Flights are limited, especially from the U.S. where the number of new cases of COVID-19 is on the rise. Students may also have concerns about exposing their families to more risk of infection, or be unable to shoulder the financial burden of a sudden move.
As the university takes legal action, Northeastern’s Office of Global Services is providing updates on these new rules, and hosting several webinars to help international students navigate them.
“We hope that through the litigation this new fall guidance will be rescinded,” Patel said. “And we can go back to the previous guidance, which provided the necessary flexibility for our international students and higher ed institutions, following public health guidance to meet the safety needs for our students and community.”