If colleges and universities just ignore COVID-19, the Trump administration essentially argued this week, the whole thing will go away.

Under guidelines released Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, international students will be forced to leave the country or transfer if their school switches to online-only classes this fall, which some have determined is the safest course.

The policy is right in line with others from the administration, which has taken every opportunity to cut back on legal immigration.

But the real goal here appears to be to force universities and colleges to open to in-person instruction this fall.

Rather than work to slow a revived outbreak that is setting records for new cases on a daily basis, the president hopes to fake a sense of normalcy, and wants higher education to go along.

So rather than offer help and understanding at a time when officials in higher education are faced with complex and difficult decisions, the president instead is making it harder for them to make choices based on science and safety.

It is a microcosm of the president’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, choosing bluster and denial over real work. That choice is largely why the outbreak here is getting worse, not better.

Foreign students are right to feel like pawns.

“A lot of us have dedicated our energies, our lives and our efforts to contributing our all to the United States, to our American institutions, to our American counterparts, to making changes and doing great things at our institutions,” a Bowdoin student from Canada told the Press Herald. “To be tossed aside just because of our citizenship at this time of uncertainty is really scary.”

Bowdoin will place most classes online this year, putting about 140 international students at risk. Harvard and MIT, with thousands of foreign students each, are placing all classes online to start the year.

There are a million or so foreign students enrolled nationwide – about 5.5 percent of students. Half come from China or India. They contribute more than $40 billion to the economy each year, and bring talent, energy and job creation to the workforce.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, international students were not allowed to take all online classes while living here. But that changed when online classes became in many circumstances the only way to safely hold them.

Now President Trump wants colleges to choose between holding on to the international students who bring so much to their schools, or following their own best judgment on virus safety – in areas of the country where cases are spiking now, it’s hard to believe it’s safe to bring thousands of students together in close proximity.

It also puts the students in a bind. It is too late for many to transfer. They’ll have to break leases and make expensive last-minute travel arrangements. Because of the rising number of COVID cases here, some may not even be able to travel home.

Once home, they may find it difficult to keep up with classes a half a world away, or to look for post-education employment.

If it holds up, the order will alienate a generation of foreign students, diminish higher education, and hurt the economy – and our culture as a whole.

Harvard and MIT are suing the Trump administration to reverse the order. Schools may find ways to work around it.

But the uncertainty caused by the order is already placing more of a burden on colleges and universities that don’t need it.

And it’s yet another sign that the Trump administration would rather force people to act like COVID-19 is gone than actually do something to get rid of it.


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