By Mimi Dwyer, Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Many U.S. colleges were scrambling on Tuesday to modify plans for the fall semester in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic a day after the Trump administration issued an order that could force tens of thousands of foreign students to leave the country if their schools hold all classes online.
The announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the logistical challenges of safely resuming classes, particularly after the federal government had granted exceptions to the rules limiting online learning for foreign students when colleges and universities in March rushed to shutter campuses and move to online classes as the pandemic forced lockdowns.
There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said institutions moving entirely to online learning must submit plans to the agency by July 15. Schools that will use only in-person learning, shortened or delayed classes, or a blend of in-person and online learning must submit plans by Aug. 1.
The guidance applies to holders of F-1 and M-1 visas, which are for academic and vocational students.
During a roundtable in Washington on reopening schools, President Donald Trump criticized a decision by Harvard University to conduct courses online in the coming academic year.
"I think it's ridiculous, I think it's an easy way out," Trump said. "I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves."
The chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, Nancy Cantor, said in a statement on Tuesday that the school, along with other colleges across the country and lawmakers in Congress, was working to "to fully understand and respond to this announcement."
In the 2018/19 school year Rutgers had nearly 7,000 international students enrolled, according to data published by the Institute of International Education.
Cantor tried to assure foreign students the university's model for the fall would be a hybrid of online and in-person classes. Most students attending schools with that type of blended curriculum, as well as those with full-time in-person instruction, would be exempt from the new rules if their plans are approved by ICE.
Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University in New York, called the administration's actions "deeply misguided" and said the university would take a number of steps in response, including structuring courses so they fit into the hybrid model.
“Together, these changes mark a devastating reversal of federal policy announced at the onset of the pandemic," Bollinger said.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told CNN on Tuesday that the new rules would “encourage schools to reopen."
Business and conservative groups have urged reopening schools safely as important to getting parents back to work and reviving the U.S. economy.
The United States is experiencing a new surge in coronavirus cases, especially among younger people, raising concerns about the increased risk of spread to vulnerable adults at home as well as to older teachers and school staff if in-person classes resume.
In a survey by the newspaper the Chronicle of Higher Education of hundreds of colleges around the country, the majority said they will offer either in-person instruction or some sort of hybrid model with on-campus and online courses. But many are still sorting out their plans.
Toni Molle, director of public affairs for California State University, which bills itself as the nation's largest four-year public university, with 23 campuses across California, said the institution was reviewing the new guidance to determine the impact on students.
Some schools - including Harvard University - have said they would offer online-only classes, which could create problems for their international students, and may now have to alter their plans.
Harvard President Larry Bacow said the institution was "deeply concerned" that the ICE guidance imposed "a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach."
(Reporting Mimi Dwyer and Mica Rosenberg in New York and Ted Hesson in Washington, D.C.; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles; editing by Ross Colvin and Leslie Adler)