In a major setback for international students, the United States on Monday said it would not allow foreign students to remain in the country if all of their classes are moved online this Fall because of the coronavirus crisis.

The new policy announced by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has left millions of students as well as universities worried.

“Non-immigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” the ICE said in a statement.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” it said.

“If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The ICE further said the “US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

F-1 students pursue academic coursework and M-1 students pursue “vocational coursework,” according to ICE.

The language of the ICE statement terms the new rules as “modifications to temporary exemptions for non-immigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester.”

The Trump administration says it had allowed only a “temporary exemption” for online courses limited to the spring and summer semesters.

Fall 2020 semester begins early September in the US, immediately after Labor Day weekend. By that time, America’s death toll is projected to have crossed the grim milestone of 170,000, according to at least a couple of predictive models.

The ICE announcement comes amidst heated debate across the country on what the coming Fall school session is going to look like.

Meanwhile, officials in the International Students Office at the University of Southern California told IANS they are still “analysing the new information” and swamped by a flood of enquiries from worried students.

Most US colleges and universities have not yet announced their plans for the fall semester.

A number of schools are looking at a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction but some, including Harvard University, have said all classes will be conducted online.

Harvard said 40 percent of undergraduates would be allowed to return to campus but their instruction would be online.

There were more than one million foreign students in the United States for the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE).

That accounted for 5.5 percent of the total US higher education population, the IIE said, and international students contributed $44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018.

The largest number of foreign students came from China, followed by India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada.

According to US Department of Commerce 2018 data, the student population contributed $45 billion to the US economy.

The ICE announcement comes at a time when the US accounts for the world’s highest number of infections and fatalities with 2,935,008 and 130,277, respectively.

(With agency inputs)