When University of Texas at Austin senior Stephanie Flores-Reyes checked her fall course schedule earlier this week, she was shocked to see all five of her classes were slated to only be online. But as an international student from Mexico who spends the school year here on an F-1 student visa, it could suddenly be problematic for Flores-Reyes to be enrolled only in classes that meet online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 visa holders in the United States under the Student Exchange Visitor Program will not be allowed to enter or stay in the country if they are attending American schools that will offer only online classes this fall. Instead, they must either transfer to a school with in-person instruction or "potentially face immigration consequences," according to a release.
For students attending schools with hybrid plans, the category most Texas universities will fall under as they forge ahead with a mixture of in-person and online classes this fall, colleges must certify to ICE that the students are enrolled in the minimum number of classes required to progress through their degree plans at a normal speed—and that they are "not taking an entirely online course load" this fall.
Flores-Reyes chose her courses carefully in order to graduate on time next May. She doesn't want to budge from her schedule, which could potentially delay her degree progress, but having all online classes means she can't return to the U.S.
"It's insane that this is not even up to me," Flores-Reyes said. "I can't make those decisions. If I'd known, obviously I would have chosen in-person classes."
The new guidance drew heavy criticism from education groups.
"We urge the administration to rethink its position and offer international students and institutions the flexibility needed to put a new normal into effect and take into account the health and safety of our students in the upcoming academic year," the American Council on Education said in a statement.
The move also has some higher education experts worried about what will happen if more classes get pushed online, even if a school is designated to be hybrid.
"The online-only rule is a good one, if it allows international students to enroll, take classes and not have to come to campus," said Michael Olivas, the former director of the University of Houston's Institute for Higher Education Law. "But ... there's a tidal wave of online classes coming our way, to hybrid schools. And if the international students that are here have to return to their home country midway, that's going to be bad."
Olivas said the hope is that if universities transition to online-only classes midway through the semester, ICE will be flexible and implement special-circumstance rules similar to those that helped the same group of students when the pandemic swept the country earlier this year.
But Student Exchange Visitor Program documents indicate that may not be the case.
"If a school changes its operational stance mid-semester, and as a result a nonimmigrant student switches to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load, schools are reminded that nonimmigrant students ... are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes," the new guidance reads. "If nonimmigrant students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps ... such as transfer to a school with in-person instruction."
ICE's decision could potentially alter fall plans for thousands of international students in the state. At UT-Austin alone, there are more than 5,000 international students, according to the school's international office. Spokesperson Fiona Mazurenko said in an email that staff members are working to respond to and support students with the limited information they have received, but declined to comment on how situations like Flores-Reyes' would be handled.
"We continue to advise all F-1 students to enroll in classes designated as in-person or web-enhanced," Mazurenko said in the email.
The University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas at El Paso also said they would work with each international student to make sure that their course schedule meets federal requirements for F-1 visas. Texas A&M University said it was monitoring the situation and would update students as more information became available.
But some faculty members are considering taking matters into their own hands. David Arditi, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he would do an independent study course for international students so that they could have the requisite in-person instruction required to stay in the country.
Arditi said he would not be compensated for the independent study course. He views this as a necessary way to protect international students – an "already vulnerable" group.
"In normal circumstances, I'm protective of my time," Arditi said. "But this is a horribly repressive system. ... We have to step up and find alternatives."
Flores-Reyes would prefer to return to Austin, where she rents an apartment still stuffed with her belongings. She hasn't been able to cross the border to retrieve anything since she fled in March to Nuevo Laredo.
Now she is looking to speak with her international adviser to plan her next steps, all while dealing with an unfamiliar set of constraints.
"I had no idea this was going to happen," Reyes-Flores said. "Now is not the time to be enforcing these rules."
Originally published by The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans—and engages with them—about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
- UT Austin releases fall semester plan - austonia ›
- Austin immigration advocates hope for Biden policy changes - austonia ›
Six weeks into the federal COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the number of Ausinites who have received a shot—or two—is growing, with recipients reporting immense relief and sharing happy selfies.
Carly Hatchell, 25<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwNzk1NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjE1ODcyM30.1Z8vDzZp-2FpKTXQAGAS4PE3Zmy5i7IGq5LBhTFQwvU/img.png?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C420%2C0%2C420&height=800" id="ec5ec" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="784f573e7e59226846176634e901f648" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(Carly Hatchell)<p>Like most early vaccine recipients in Texas, Carly Hatchell is a frontline healthcare worker. As a psychiatric research associate at Dell Medical School and Dell Children's Medical Center, she received her shot from UT Health Austin, the medical school's clinical arm, which was the first provider in Travis County to receive doses from the state.</p><p>Hatchell received her first shot on Dec. 18, during the initial week of the rollout, and her second shot earlier this month. "I was very clear on my decision," she told Austonia. "Public health is a big interest to me. I actually served as a contact tracer earlier on in the pandemic."</p><p>Other than some soreness in her arm, she didn't experience any other side effects.<br></p><p>Hatchell described her vaccine experience as bittersweet, mostly because although she is now protected most people around her are not. "I have parents (in Houston) who are retired and older, and I know it's really difficult for them," she said. "I kind of wish I could share my dose with them."</p><p>Until most people are vaccinated, Hatchell is planning on operating as though she isn't. "I do feel confident that I am at less risk," she said. "But I haven't reduced my precautions just because we don't yet have the data (about long-term protections)."</p>
Tom Madison, 43<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwODE0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0OTg4MTkzMX0.Iy6vqa1O2lVbX-0wE1pmCFn6zBYgxDUJfop9XNu60GM/img.jpg?width=980" id="6e343" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c8732e6c36a94506fc53df3dd2ce2d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="480" data-height="600" /><p>Tom Madison is a lieutenant in the Austin Fire Department and the husband of Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who has lupus and is a breast cancer survivor, putting her at high risk of death from COVID.</p><p>Because of Madison's job, where he runs the risk of exposure on every shift, he moved out of <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-fire-coronavirus" target="_blank">his family's home in March</a>. Now that he has received both shots of the vaccine, he feels safer—but is still cautious. </p><p>"I'm still staying in the trailer next to the house," he said. "So we're still social distancing from one another because (Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority) Dr. (Mark) Escott told my wife that we should do it until she gets vaccinated." </p><p>In the meantime, Madison has helped administer vaccines at the Delco Center, where Austin Public Health has hosted mass distribution events. "It was a huge operation," he said. "People waited in line for hours. When they go in there, they were so appreciative. It was nice to see."</p>
Nancy Kahn, 64<p>Nancy Kahn is a nurse who works for a very small company that wasn't able to provide her access to a vaccine. So she began searching for an appointment anywhere she could find one, including a pharmacy in New Braunfels that she heard had one vial—with 10 doses—for healthcare workers. After waiting on the phone for an hour, she snagged a spot at Austin Regional Clinic. "I got lucky," she said. </p><p>Kahn's husband falls in the 1B group as someone who is over 65 years old and who has had cancer twice. So far, she has enrolled him in three waitlists. "He's number 3,000 at one place. He's 600 at another place," she said. "At ARC, I don't know what number."</p><p>Still, Khan is optimistic. "I've got a sister in Arizona and a brother in Illinois," she said. "There's no talk of 1B (eligibility in those states). So it could be worse."</p>
Stephanie E., 35<p>Stephanie E., who works for a law enforcement agency with a no-media policy and asked that her last name not be used, was surprised when her employer offered her a vaccine because she has worked from home the entirety of the pandemic. "There was a lot of guilt," she said. "But I'm also 35 weeks pregnant now. It's not likely they were going to give my dose to a teacher or anything, so I went ahead and did it."</p><p>E.'s midwife and maternal-fetal medicine doctor told her they couldn't encourage or discourage her from getting vaccinated because of the limited data. But she wasn't concerned. "If Dr. Fauci gets it, then it seems safe," she said, adding that she feels better about her upcoming hospital stay—when she'll give birth—knowing that she has an extra layer of protection.</p><p>Now vaccinated, E. hasn't let down her guard. With three kids at home, including an 11-month old, she and her husband continue to be cautious, avoiding visits with even extended family. "They're going to meet two babies at once," she said.</p>
Capri Conlon, 29<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwNzk2NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2ODI3MTkyNH0.yLnRFz4NuS0DXcco02pQngPC-2cP_LW2N7oAWuset4Q/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C635%2C0%2C635&height=800" id="2c42c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d4c1cb0bcd2dd03ece42f6e712bcd37d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" /><p>Capri Conlin is a nurse practitioner for Dell Children's Hospital. Last month, her employer sent out a sign-up link to all eligible employees, but Conlin's name was accidentally left off of it. Luckily, it was a quick fix and she received her first shot on the same day as Hatchell, in mid-December. "There's finally a light at the end of the tunnel," she said after receiving her second shot. "It feels surreal." </p><p>Conlin's patients are children and most of them are immunocompromised. As a result, she has changed her way of life to ensure she doesn't put any of them at risk of contracting COVID-19. </p><p>"Getting the vaccine, it just felt like a big relief," she said. "I just know going into my patients' room I'm not putting them at risk anymore."</p>
Lynne Wiesman, 61<p>Wiesman is a professor at Austin Community College, where she teaches American sign language interpreting. Before the pandemic, she also worked often as an interpreter in area hospitals. </p><p>Although the state of Texas did not include interpreters in group 1A, a local agency successfully advocated for interpreters to be prioritized in Travis County because of their work on the front lines. </p><p>As a result, Wiesman was able to make an appointment to get vaccinated after someone shared the number for a triage nurse at ARC on a private FB page for interpreters. "I do anticipate going back to (work in) hospitals," she said. </p><p>But first Wiesman needs her second shot, which is scheduled for early February. "They've assured us (there will be enough doses)," she said. "That's the only thing that I have a slight concern about." </p><p>Wiesman opted out of taking a photo of herself having received the vaccine. She says she didn't want to rub it in the face of less privileged people who wish to be vaccinated. </p>
- COVID vaccines in Austin and where to get on a waitlist - austonia ›
- Austin COVID curve is flattening but vaccines remain limited - austonia ›
- Austin businesses can mandate a COVID Vaccine. Will they ... ›
- A 'handful' of ineligible people got the COVID vaccine in Austin ... ›
- UT Health Austin administers first COVID-19 vaccines - austonia ›
Turns out, celebrities enjoy Stubb's BBQ just as much as the rest of Austin. Recent Texas transplants Joe Rogan and Elon Musk were spotted along with Dave Chappelle and other celebrities at the popular Texas venue for a night on the town.
- Joe Rogan surprises Big Laugh Comedy with show - austonia ›
- EXCLUSIVE: Joe Rogan teases new Texas podcast studio; locals ... ›
- Timeline of Joe Rogan moving to Austin - austonia ›
As Major League Soccer's only expansion team this season, Austin FC will receive first pick in all three rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday.