BOSTON — The Trump administration has rescinded a rule that would have required international students to transfer schools or leave the country if their colleges hold classes entirely online this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the decision as a court hearing was getting underway on a challenge to the rule by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The schools argued that the policy was created unlawfully and that it contradicts previous guidance from federal immigration officials. The colleges are asking the court to block the rule at least temporarily.

Under the policy, international students in the U.S. would have been forbidden from taking all of their courses online this fall. New visas would not be issued to students at schools planning to provide all classes online, which includes Harvard. Students already in the U.S. would face deportation if they didn’t transfer schools or leave the country voluntarily.

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Pedestrians walk through the gates of Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in 2019. AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

The rule creates a dilemma for thousands of foreign students who stayed in the U.S. after their colleges shifted to remote learning last spring.

The policy drew sharp backlash from higher education institutions, with more than 200 signing court briefs supporting the challenge by Harvard and MIT. Colleges say the policy puts students’ safety at risk and hurts schools financially. At least seven other suits have been filed by schools and states opposing the policy.

Bowdoin College, which has a student population of about 1,800 and is expecting to enroll 140 international students next year, had filed a brief in support of the Harvard and MIT lawsuit and other similar suits in different parts of the country.

“I was surprised and delighted,” President Clayton Rose said of the decision to revoke the guidance. “This will allow international students at Bowdoin and at colleges and universities around the country to be able to continue their studies both on campus and, for those who cannot return to the U.S., to continue their studies remotely without jeopardizing their visa status.”

Rose said the guidance issued last week had prompted Bowdoin to re-evaluate its plans for a return to campus, which currently calls for almost all classes to be taught online and for almost all upperclassmen to remain off campus for the fall semester. He said it has been a week of uncertainty and anxiety for international students.

“This is great and welcome news and now we can move on in putting in place plans for the fall that will allow us to make sure we’re keeping the health and safety of our campus and the Brunswick community first and foremost and also deliver a great education for our students,” Rose said.

Immigration officials issued the policy last week, reversing earlier guidance from March 13 telling colleges that limits around online education would be suspended during the pandemic. University leaders believe the rule is part of President Donald Trump’s effort to pressure the nation’s schools and colleges to reopen this fall even as new virus cases rise.

Harvard and MIT argue that immigration officials violated procedural rules by issuing the guidance without justification and without allowing the public to respond. They also argue that the policy contradicts ICE’s March 13 directive telling schools that existing limits on online education would be suspended “for the duration of the emergency.”

The suit notes that Trump’s national emergency declaration has not been rescinded and that virus cases are spiking in some regions.

Immigration officials, however, say they told colleges all along that any guidance prompted by the pandemic was subject to change. They say the rule is consistent with existing law barring international students from taking classes entirely online. Federal officials say they are providing leniency by allowing students to keep their visas even if they study online from abroad this fall.


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