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Interested Parties Watch To See If U.S. Schools Reopen For Fall Semester


Will schools reopen in the fall? Parents, teachers and students are all craving an answer to that question. Yesterday, the White House weighed in. At a roundtable on education, President Trump had this to say.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.

MARTIN: So what's that pressure going to look like? Will it work? Elissa Nadworny covers education for NPR, and she joins us now. Hi, Elissa.


MARTIN: So President Trump says he is pressuring states to reopen schools full time in person, but, I mean, these are really state and local decisions, aren't they?

NADWORNY: That's right. And some states, like Florida and Texas, they have announced a return to full-time in-person school this fall. But a lot more states are taking their time with this decision, and there's good reason for that. You know, on one hand, schools provide important support services, but there's a social, emotional and academic cost to keeping kids at home. If students are staying home, it makes it harder for their parents or their caregivers to go back to work. But bringing students back to school safely, it's expected to cost a lot. One estimate says schools may need more than $200 billion in federal funding to pull it off. So far, Congress has set aside $13 billion.

MARTIN: So Elissa, explain why that's so expensive. Making safe in-person schooling - why's it cost so much?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So the CDC recommends that schools intensify cleaning and disinfection, encourage social distancing by spacing students out more and teaching them in smaller groups. And all of that takes extra staff, space, resources that schools just don't have right now. And then this is on top of state budget cuts, so schools are squeezed.

MARTIN: So I want to stay on education but pivot a bit because this was not the only way the Trump administration was weighing in on education policy. There are new rules from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. They say international students cannot stay in this country if their schools go entirely online in the fall. And I mean, this could potentially impact hundreds of thousands of students who are here. That includes Victor Tralci from Venezuela. He is an incoming master's student at the University of North Texas. And he talked with one of our producers. Let's listen.

VICTOR TRALCI: When I first heard the news, I honestly thought that it was fake news. It doesn't seem fair that we're being asked to leave the country under technicalities in our immigration status because of something that we cannot control.

MARTIN: So Elissa, explain what's in this new federal rule.

NADWORNY: So if your school has come out and said, due to the pandemic, we're going to all be virtual in the fall, the federal rule says you cannot remain in the U.S. To stay, you'd have to transfer to a school that's offering in-person classes. Here's Rachel Banks from NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

RACHEL BANKS: It really removed the decision-making power from higher education institutions. Basically, this guidance has said, well, if you're going to pursue a fully online model, you can't have international students on your campus.

NADWORNY: So ICE says the guidance is to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 by not admitting students into the country who don't need to be here. The State Department issued a statement saying the guidance will help with social distancing on campus.

But the timing is really significant because colleges have spent all summer figuring out their plans for the fall. And many have already told students what they are going to do, including moving up the school's start date to avoid a possible second wave, which doesn't leave a lot of time for schools to rearrange their plans or for students to transfer to another program.

MARTIN: I mean, this is also complicated for students but also, I mean, for schools, isn't this going to be a financial hit? Don't colleges and universities get a lot of money from foreign students?

NADWORNY: Absolutely. International students tend to be a big moneymaker for college. According to one economic analysis, international students contributed $41 billion to American higher ed in just a recent academic year.

You know, some schools have already announced that they'll be online in the fall. That's including Harvard and the California State University system. As cases have started to rise, other schools, like the University of Southern California, have scaled back initial plans to be all in-person. Now they're planning a hybrid approach, meaning there's some face-to-face instruction and some online.

The experts I talked to say they expect more schools to take this hybrid approach. It's actually one way that colleges might be able to help their international students navigate this guidance because students will have at least one class in person.

MARTIN: All right. So Elissa, stick with us, but I want to bring another voice into the conversation, NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer because India is actually the country with the second-highest foreign student body in the U.S. after China. Lauren happens to be covering all this right now, and she is on the line.

Lauren, good morning. What has been the reaction in India to this new rule change here in the U.S. for foreign students?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So the Indian government issued a statement saying it brought this up in talks with U.S. officials yesterday. This all - it comes all after the Trump administration froze H-1B visas last month, if you recall. That's a type of...

MARTIN: Right.

FRAYER: ...Work visa that goes overwhelmingly to Indian tech workers. So the U.S. has put on hold visas for 280,000 tech workers from India, and now it's jeopardizing the visas of 200,000 students from India. So those things together have Indians pretty upset.

I spoke with the head of the North American Association for Indian Students. His name is Sudhanshu Kaushik. He's based in New York. And he says he got more than 2,000 calls and messages in less than 24 hours from Indians who say they're just feeling really besieged by what's going on in the U.S. right now.

SUDHANSHU KAUSHIK: It's quite emotional. I received a message from someone who is studying in Alabama, and he's like, I tested for COVID positive; I had to quarantine. And then on top of that, you know, having to face the racial movements already happening and having to live through that and be a person of color as well, you know, there's just so many layers of tensions going on.

FRAYER: So he's actually arranging a Zoom event tomorrow for concerned students. And lawyers from the South Asian Bar Association have offered to give legal advice to some of these students on a pro bono basis.

MARTIN: I mean, what can these students do, Lauren? Is there some kind of workaround here?

FRAYER: That's what they're trying to figure out pretty quickly right now. They could transfer to another school that is doing in-person classes. I mean, students are thinking about changing their majors. Humanities might be all online, but science labs often have to be in-person. And so people are thinking about changing their whole course of study. Professors have also said if that's what it takes, they'll hold once-a-month tutorials, tell their university administrations that it's essential for the coursework, if that's what it takes to keep these students in the country.

But you know, then you've got people meeting face-to-face, and there is a risk of the coronavirus. That was a big concern for another Indian woman I talked to. Her name is Bansari Kamdar. She's a master's student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

BANSARI KAMDAR: Choices are so difficult. Either you risk getting coronavirus, or you leave the country. It's just plain cruel to a lot of students.

FRAYER: She says she's seeing real hysteria and panic among a lot of her friends who are international students.

MARTIN: And we'll wrap up with Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, how are U.S. universities reacting to this?

NADWORNY: So college administrators are frustrated, and they're confused. And some are saying it's illegal. Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit this morning against Homeland Security and ICE. The suit says that going remote during a pandemic is of paramount importance. And for some students, leaving the U.S. is untenable, even dangerous. Right now, schools tell me they are committed to helping their international students navigate this.

MARTIN: NPR's Elissa Nadworny from our education desk and Lauren Frayer, who covers India - thanks to you both for your reporting.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.