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NEW DELHI/MUMBAI : The moment Chirag Sharma saw the news on his phone that the US would not allow international students to stay in the country if they took online classes, he wrote a mail to his adviser at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington DC.

He requested to be shifted to the online-plus-physical class format for the next semester that starts in August. “My school has a hybrid model and I had selected online classes to protect myself from the virus. But if that means I will have to return, then it’s best I do my classes in-person," says Sharma, 22, who has taken a 15 lakh loan for the two-year course in accounting and taxation. “I hope there’s still space for me to be accommodated in the physical classes. I have heard that if cases continue to rise, all classes will go online. I’m very worried and confused."

As students across the world contemplate what their fall semester will look like, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency on 6 July limited options for international students. Over 250,000 Indian students will now have to decide whether they will attend in-person classes in the middle of a pandemic or study online while sitting in their home country. Students who have enrolled in universities that have already decided to go entirely online won’t be allowed to enter the US.

“Active students currently in the US 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," states a release from ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings."

The move will put additional pressure on universities to open its premises amid growing concerns that the virus is increasingly affecting young adults.

Sumeet Jain, co-founder of Yocket, a platform that guides students to study abroad, believes most universities will now consider opening campuses. Even institutions that had said they would go completely online will now have to consider a hybrid or on-campus model to retain students. “I don't see any university being able to take that big blow of not having international students on campus because that would mean hurting revenues," he says. “If there’s a hybrid model, students who are currently doing courses online from India may be able to go back. But again, we have to wait and see how they flesh out the rules," says Jain.

Close to 23% of colleges plan to offer a hybrid model, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and Northwestern. The ICE guidance has given them a short deadline of 1 August to outline their plans. Indian students at institutions like Harvard, where the coursework has shifted completely online, are shocked at the decision. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now. I can’t tell my parents how stressed I am because they will get worried. I have taken a Rs50 lakh loan for this, and what if I get deported and put my parents at risk?" says a 27-year-old Harvard student, who doesn’t want to reveal her name.

Ishani Singh, 25, who is pursuing master’s degree in publishing in print and digital media from New York University, is waiting for more information from her university. “There was mention of hybrid model but it’s subject to change depending on the situation. It’s very unfair to put us through this. We are at risk of losing our education and the opportunity to work there," says Singh, who flew back to Delhi mid-March.

Sunita Gandhi, founder of learning platform Global Classroom, calls the ICE decision “retrograde". Her daughter is a senior at Denver University on a full scholarship. “All her classes have been held online and she has received her next semester plans as well. What if her university decides to stay online? She will not be able to get a scholarship at short notice at a university that offers physical classes, and her course choices may not be available there," she says. “This is unnecessary confusion and uncertainty at such a difficult time."

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