US Government Tries Pressuring Schools To Open in Fall

On July 6, the Trump administration announced a directive that would have required international students to leave the US if their classes were entirely online. On July 14 the directive was rescinded, thanks to lawsuits from Harvard and MIT against the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

The now-reversed policy would have prevented new visas being issued for students at schools which would provide all their classes online in the fall. International students already in the US would need to switch to a school with in-person classes, voluntarily leave the US, or be deported.

The presidents of Harvard and MIT both framed this legal victory as attempts by their universities to protect their students. Of course, it is also in the self-interest of such schools to keep international students enrolled. Also, although Harvard and MIT led the way, over 200 other higher education institutions signed court briefs supporting the lawsuit.

According to Terry Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on Education:

There has never been a case where so many institutions sued the federal government.

The main argument by Harvard and MIT was that the guidance against new visas was issued with justification and without allowing the public to respond. That is a violation of procedure, and also a contradiction of a directive the ICE made on March 13 which claimed that limits on online education would be suspended during the emergency. Perhaps ironically, Trump’s own national emergency declaration has not been rescinded yet.

Federal officials saw things differently, of course. They argued the ICE made it clear that any recent emergency-related guidance was subject to change, and that the rule was consistent with existing laws against international students taking fully online classes. Letting students keep their visas was, according to them, being lenient.

Trump has been a consistent critic of fully-online schooling. A tweet from him on July 6 reads:


In a “National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America’s Schools” on the 8th, where health and educational leaders, students and parents all converged at the White House to meet the President, he openly claimed he would put a lot of pressure on governors to open schools.

This push to reopen schools is often framed as part of a political push by Trump to improve the economy in time for this year’s election. So it is perhaps ironic that he accused governors who aim to keep schools closed as being politically motivated:

And we don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons. They think it’s going to be good for them politically so they keep the schools closed. No way.

However according to senior officials, whether schools remain open is a local decision, not a federal one. The main tool at the federal government’s disposal is stimulus funding, followed by local Republican politicians’ willingness to follow Trump. For example, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has supported reopening schools in fall, and in return Trump praised him for his decision.


  • AP News
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