UC Berkeley monitors international student visa statuses after shift to online classes

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UC Berkeley administration is monitoring information regarding the global spread of COVID-19, more colloquially known as the coronavirus, to ensure that UC Berkeley’s 6,566 international students meet visa requirements after most in-person classes were canceled through March 29.

International students’ status on F-1 visas will not be affected at this time, according to UC Office of the President, or UCOP, spokesperson Sarah McBride. She added that the current Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, guidelines allow some flexibility for these students to remain in the United States even if their coursework is now being completed online.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we are committed to supporting students academically and through student support services,” McBride said in an email. “UC President Janet Napolitano also issued a directive on March 5 that restricts non-essential, University travel to countries designated CDC Level 2 and higher.”

The Berkeley International Office, or BIO, is encouraging students to avoid travel due to potential travel delays and travel bans that may make returning to the United States difficult, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. She added that as long as students continue a full course load or remain enrolled in classes, they will maintain their nonimmigrant status.

Gilmore added that in-person advising, weekly newsletters and informational travel webinars have been ongoing efforts by the BIO to answer questions, and the office is continuing regular business hours.

According to ASUC Executive Vice President Andy Theocharous, his office is working with campus to ensure there is summer housing reserved for international students, with priority given to students whose home countries have travel restrictions. Theocharous’ office is also trying to arrange a dining hall discount for these students to ensure that their basic needs are met.

“We will focus on the response of coronavirus in the short term,” Theocharous said. “We’re beginning the process of securing basic needs for all kinds of communities in the long run.”

Expressing concerns on how travel bans and the switch to online classes might affect international students, Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun sent a public letter to the DHS urging it to provide international students with F-1 visas “flexibility” despite the potential violation of their immigration statuses.

Aoun added that the United States has a “long and proud tradition” of providing accessible higher education to the “best and brightest from around the world.”

“On the face of it, closing the dorms and sending students home makes sense if the institution moves to on-line instruction, as dorms are an epidemiologist’s nightmare,” said Thanasis Kinias, Northeastern University doctoral candidate and graduate worker in the department of history, in an email. “However, I would be very worried about forcing international students to return to their home countries right now, especially if they come from countries hit hard by COVID19.”

The UC system is also advocating for flexibility with international student visas for the approximately 42,000 UC graduate and undergraduate students that hold F-1 visas, according to McBride.

“We remain available to students to ensure all of their questions are answered and to take any needed action based on any decision they make about their enrollment status,” Gilmore said in an email. “We are monitoring all information sources and will adapt our advising and other services as needed.”

Contact Skylar Schoemig at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sschoemig_dc.