On the positive side, the announcement was made before the summer rush. Another good sign: The national-interest exemption was narrowly tailored to students — as a result, their applications won’t be competing with those from business or leisure travelers as they move through the queue. Even during peak season, students account for about one in six visas issued in China.
Student-visa volume in the other three countries included in the announcement, Brazil, Iran, and South Africa, isn’t nearly as high, but they have their own issues. Prospective students from Iran, for example, must travel to neighboring countries to apply.
Nor are problems limited to this handful of countries — the U.S. embassy in Moscow announced that it was restricting consular services
as the result of a standoff with the Russian government over the hiring of local staff.
Will students be able to travel to the U.S.? The number of passengers traveling internationally is about a third of what it was before the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and so flights have been reduced. That’s especially true of routes between China and the U.S., where the number of flights dropped from 300 a week to just a handful at height of the pandemic. Availability has since improved, but with a large number of students needing to travel to America within a fairly narrow window, between mid-July and early September, demand could outstrip supply.
Families will also be carefully watching cost. When students sought to return home in the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak, airfares soared. Could that happen again? After the restrictions were lifted last week, ticket prices between Beijing and Boston quadruped.
What happens when students get here?
As of Friday, 190 colleges had announced
they would require students to be vaccinated before coming to campus for fall. In many cases, campus policies stipulate that students be inoculated with U.S.-approved vaccines. Yet many international students, in China and elsewhere, do not have access to these vaccines, or sometimes to any at all.
In recommendations released last week, the American College Health Association said that colleges should refer to local, state, and federal guidelines about the efficacy of non-American vaccines and should offer re-vaccinations to international students when appropriate.
But at the moment, college administrators tell me they are operating with little guidance: Which foreign vaccines are OK? Is re-vaccination safe? How can they get students to campus with ample time to be vaccinated and quarantine without missing the start of classes?
And don’t count out Covid
. India offers a sobering reminder. Case counts had appeared under control there only to surge back at record rates. Consulates reopened then closed again, and visa services have been canceled until mid-May, at least. On Friday, the White House announced it would follow the lead of other countries and bar travelers
from India. Students, however, will be excluded
from the entry restrictions.
“We’re reeling from Covid here right now,” Marcy Newman Murli, a college counselor in Karnatka messaged me the other morning. Who knows, she told me, what will happen to her students’ plans to study abroad.
Another welcome policy announcement:
Also last week the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it would extend pandemic guidance
to give international students flexibility to study online for the 2021-22 academic year. Prior to the pandemic, international students were required to take almost all of their classes in person.