Though universities are hopeful that the vaccine rollout will return a sense of normalcy to the fall semester, a question remains about international students whose plans were curtailed by the pandemic. Will they make it to campus in time?
Experts say that while students have been exempted from coronavirus-related travel restrictions, overseas U.S. consulate shutdowns and backlogs could leave them waiting for their visas until September.
“Remember they’re not just processing visas for new students in the 2021-2022 academic year, but also our freshman class for last year. We’ve been told that once a consulate is up and fully operational, it’ll be several months before they work through the backlog,” says Sarah Spreitzer, government relations director at the American Council on Education.
Elizabeth Goss, an immigration attorney who specializes in obtaining visas for immigrants, says consulates were hit with the departure of long-term foreign service officers before the pandemic and the sidelining of nonessential workers during. Those factors will also impact how quickly students can secure their travel plans.
“As these different consulates and embassies start to process again, adjudications are going to be slow, lines are going to be long,” Goss says, adding that students will be competing with other types of travelers to get their paperwork through. “They will waive some interviews, but for all first-time F-1 student visas, they still want that five minutes at the window to assess whether they want to issue that visa.”
While Goss says the State Department historically has prioritized students and scholars, it’s still unclear whether that pattern will continue. June and July are the busiest months for student visa applications, she added.