Update on March 23: The Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has confirmed that since international students' SEVIS record will remain active during this temporary period of remote instruction outside of the United States, “the 5-month temporary absence provision addressed in 8 C.F. R.214.2(f)(4) will not apply," according to the Office of International Services.

While USC will finish the rest of the academic semester online or remotely due to coronavirus pandemic, many international students are hesitating to return their home country, mostly because of their concerns about “the five-month rule.”

The five-month rule refers to “the termination of a student’s record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) based on the student being away from classes or not in status for five months,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In a general setting, the five-month rule prevents international students from spending more than five months outside of the United States during an absence from school, excluding those participating in authorized study abroad programs, according to the DHS. International students with terminated records will need to obtain a new I-20 form with a new SEVIS ID and possibly a new visa.

In a March 13 interview with Annenberg Media, Tony Tambascia, the executive director of Office of International Services, said that having a record of applying for a new I-20 form may be interpreted negatively by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services as starting over an F1 visa. That also could affect these student’s OPT employment eligibility, he said.

USC has said in a university-wide memo and on its website that “the decision whether to return to your home country is a personal one and should be considered carefully, in consultation with family when possible. We want you to be where you will feel most comfortable in the coming weeks.”

While a FAQs page for international students on the USC website answers lots of questions from taking classes in their home country to Optional Practical Training (OPT) application, the website states that “as of March 17, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not released any specific written temporary guidance for students who anticipate being outside the United States for more than five months due to the travel restrictions related to COVID-19. The university’s Office of International Services will provide more information on this matter as it becomes available.”

In the past four days, Annenberg Media has received nearly forty inquiries from international students via our WeChat platform about their dilemma of going back home, most caused by confusion related to the five-month rule. They are worried that if they leave now in March and they may not be able to come back to the U.S. in August or September if there will still be travel restrictions or flight suspensions at that point.

OIS announced via email March 14 that they will provide all support in remote format until further notice, and immigration documents will be mailed. OIS also said in the email that the office has been receiving a high volume of inquiries, and they are gathering “the best possible guidance during this rapidly evolving situation.”

In an exclusive interview with Annenberg Media Tuesday (March 17) afternoon, Tambascia shared his explanation, thoughts and interpretations on the five-month rule during COVID-19 pandemics.

“To clarify practical issues for any continuing students who remain in full-time online course work during the duration of the emergency in our adjustment period, OIS will keep those students’ SEVIS record in active status. While we expect that should solve the five-month absence this year for any student who’s coming back in Fall 2020 to continue their studies, we are going to continue to ask DHS for written assurance that they are in agreement with that status, which we think it would be their responsibility to provide more detailed assurance that that is okay.” ------Tony Tambascia, the executive director of the Office of International Services.

Tambsacia said back in January, DHS stated that in the situations for international students who end up being outside of the U.S. for over five months due to the coronavirus disruptions, those situations will be handled at the time identified on a case by case basis.

On March 13, DHS released a notice titled “COVID-19: Guidance for SEVP Stakeholders.” Tambascia said this notice approved international students for temporary online studies inside or outside of the U.S. for the duration of this specific emergency while the university has adjusted its operation to online instruction.

He adds that per this March guidance, international students still need to remain a full course load to maintain F1 status during this temporary online instruction unless they have received permission through a Reduced Course Load (RCL) or Leave of Absence (LOA) approval by USC’s Office of International Services.

Tambascia said while the DHS’s March notice does not explicitly talk about the five-month rules, USC and many other universities “are forced to combine those guidance documents” and make their best interpretations, though “it mixed with so many uncertainties around this situation.”

“We are now pushing for and waiting a written clarification from DHS that the latest notice they issued in March that authorizes maintenance of active F1 status for those to leave the country during the special period of online instruction will not have that time of outside of the country to apply to the determination of more than five months of absence.”

Tambascia said he knows many universities, including USC, and organizations are asking DHS to give a documented clarification.

“The best possible outcome would be a written confirmation by DHS that they agree with that interpretation,” he said. “That’s what we are pushing for. We really want to see them say the earlier guidance that these will be handled on a case by case basis is no longer necessary because we agree with other universities that this should mean that is not a problem.”

A Tuesday update on the FAQs page for international students on the USC website also adds more clarification for international students who are applying for OPT.

International students, at this point, still need to be physically present in the United States to apply for OPT or OPT STEM extension. OPT is one way for international students to work in the U.S. after graduation.

The update on Tuesday states that international students applying for OPT “must be present in the United States at the time USCIS issues a receipt number to acknowledge acceptance of your packet.”

The update also states that leaving the U.S. may cause the OPT application to be rejected because application requires an I-94 number, which is only valid when international students are in the U.S.

“USC and other universities have made this issue known to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and have urged the agency to provide special accommodations for OPT application rules due to the COVID-19 situation. Any updates will be posted to this site as they are available,” the website states.