KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — International students will have to make sure they enroll in at least one in-person class for Fall 2020 if they want to keep their student visas.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday that nonimmigrant international students cannot take a full online courseload and remain in the United States.

“The U.S. 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” a press release stated.

The University of Tennessee has about 1,060 international students representing 95 countries.

Carson-Newman University had about 89 international students representing 32 countries in spring of 2020.

Maryville College had 49 international students from 24 countries in the spring, but following the college’s closure due to COVID-19, between 15 and 30 of them several chose to go back home.

Due to COVID-19, colleges at first went completely online in order for students to finish the semester.

The new policy not allowing international students to enroll in only online classes was announced around the same time colleges and universities were figuring out how to safely reopen campus for Fall 2020.

Avinash Palaparthy, an international student at UT, said he was fortunate that most of his classes will be in person next semester. He knew some friends who were not as lucky.

Palaparthy studies civil engineering at the university while on a student visa from India, although he technically resided in Batswana with his mother and brother when he’s not studying in Knoxville.

He said he would be worried if the state or county chose to cancel in-person classes again if there’s another wave of COVID-19 cases.

“Taking a semester off or a year off and then coming back into fully engineering classes, I’ll need to keep up with all my math and physics and everything while not doing anything. And, would I be able to go back and get a job and just do something with my life and not sit idle,” Palaparthy asked.

“Changes to federal policy about international students and online courses have caused concern among many in our campus community.

The Center for Global Engagement will work with international students to help them comply with the law, have a meaningful educational experience, and continue to study at the university. Options available to our students include hybrid courses, independent study, and graduate seminars.

The university has approximately 1,060 international students representing 95 countries. They are scholars, contributors to campus life, and valued members of the Volunteer family.”

Owen Driskill, Assistant Director of Communications at the University of Tennessee

Dr. Charles Fowler, president of Carson-Newman University, said that international students at his university would only be impacted if the state decided to close campuses again.

For the fall 2020 semester, Carson-Newman will have a hybrid setting in order to follow social distancing guidelines, but classes will mostly be in-person.

“We will be talking individually with each of (the international students) to help them understand when they’re developing their schedules the importance of making sure they meet the expectations of the policy,” Fowler said.

Fowler said he was disappointed in the new policy. He said it puts a burden not only on the colleges, but also the students, unnecessarily so during an already more stressful time.

He said the impact wouldn’t only be financial, but also cultural.

“We want our students to have cross-cultural experiences, we want to learn from our internationals. They enjoy learning from us and it makes it such a unique college experience that if we found ourselves in that situation and our internationals were pulled out of our community, we would all suffer from that and it’s very sad to me,” Fowler said.

Fowler also said he can’t imagine how international students must be feeling, knowing that if classes had to go back to online only, their peers would be able to stay, but due to circumstances out of their control, the international students would be forced to leave.

Maryville College will also be offering a hybrid format, but Dr. Bryan Coker, president of the college, hoped the policy would be reversed.

“In the midst of COVID-19, colleges and universities should be able to choose – or transition to – online instruction without fear of jeopardizing the status of international students. This new guidance is simply inexplicable and should be reversed.

“International travel, study and experiences are highly valued by the Maryville College community, as they foster global understanding and promote peace in the world. Since the 19thcentury, when they first began enrolling at Maryville College, international students have greatly shaped what the College is and what it stands for.

“We support our international students, and we advocate for safe and responsible educational approaches amidst a pandemic. This ICE policy – if enacted – forces colleges and universities into a very unfortunate corner.”

Dr. Bryan Coker, President of Maryville College

Maryville College said the policy would impact several of their students, if they haven’t already been impacted by COVID-19 for other reasons.

Three ESL (English as second language) students with F-1 visas are currently abroad, and if they can’t travel back to the U.S., then they won’t be able to enroll.

One of those students is still waiting for a visa, and also lives in a European country where travel is currently banned.

The two others are also in countries not allowing, or highly advising against, travel to another country.

Twenty students would be impacted by the online class policy if the college was forced back into distance learning; 11 other students are waiting for visas; five students deferred; and two exchange programs, which usually sends about five more international students, deferred their programs until spring.

Karen Eldridge, spokesperson for Maryville College, said the policy could cause the college to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, but she said the value of their international students go beyond the economic impact.

“International students help foster global understanding and worldwide peace as stereotypes are dismantled and relationships are formed,” Eldridge said.

Kirsten Sheppard, the college’s director for the Center of International Education, said the biggest impact for Maryville College was the closures of embassies world wide, travel bans and the overall lack of containment of the virus.

However, the new policy questions equity of international students across the country.

“This decision means that many students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S. will be forced to go home and disrupt their education. Many have leases they will be forced to break, others may not have the means to go home, or the means to access online education from home. We had several stay in the spring for just this reason. For some students, going home will mean further costs for new visas and flights that were not built into their cost of education.”

Kirsten Sheppard, Director for the Center of International Education at Maryville College