Washington: Soon after President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency to combat the novel coronavirus, the Indian Embassy in the US asked the large Indian students' community to avoid all non-essential domestic and international travel.
There are over 200,000 Indian students studying in various educational institutions and universities in the US.
"Please avoid all non-essential domestic or international travel," the embassy here said in an advisory to Indian students.
For official advisories on domestic and international travel, the students have been asked to check the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 100 colleges and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Harvard University, have also suspended in-person teaching and announced to shift to online classes in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed 41 lives in the US.
The institutions have also asked students not to return after the spring break and to move out of their houses and first-year dorms. This has created a major challenge for students from India as a large number of them do not have any friends and relatives in the US.
For international travel, the Indian Embassy asked students to contact their Designated School Official (DSO) for information on any possible impact in the future on their F-1 or J-1 status.
F-1 or J-1 are two different categories of visas for international students.
These have certain restrictions on stay of an international student after their academic institute closes down or they conclude their courses.
Indian students also face the problem of visa validity in the development of universities moving to online courses. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does not consider online courses as a reason for foreign students to stay in the US.
The embassy advised Indian students to read official campus advisories or contact their DSO for information on how short-term or long-term shifts to online courses will impact their F-1 or J-1 status.
"If you are graduating in Spring 2020 and travelling internationally, please contact your DSO for advice on how this may impact your graduation and application for OPT," the embassy said.
On this matter, the US government has indicated that this is an evolving situation, it said.
The embassy said that "at this stage, they expect the closure to be of limited duration (two to four weeks), which fits within the current regulatory context".
"When the school re-opens, the student will resume studies. They are treating this more like a spring or summer break, where a student may remain in the country even though the school is not in session," it said.
"However, if the closure is for several months (five or more), which exceeds the permissible period between semesters, then the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) will provide additional guidance," the embassy said.
For those staying in on-campus housing and have been asked to vacate, the advisory said, asking students to check with their university if they can petition to continue staying in on-campus housing.
"If you cannot petition for continued on-campus housing or your petition is not accepted, consult with your university or your network on how to find alternate accommodations," it said.
In an advisory MIT, which has a large number of Indian students, on Thursday had advised all undergraduate students to accelerate their move out plans.
MIT will reimburse travel change expenses and new reservation costs of up to USD 500 for undergraduates who move up their departure to before Sunday, March 15, at midnight, the institute said in its advisory.
"If your university is shutting down on-campus services, check with your university on how to avail your university's health services, student health insurance, international student services, and any other essential service(s) that may be impacted," the embassy advisory said.
The embassy informed Indian students that if they are planning travel from the US to India, then they will be subject to medical screening upon arrival and they may be put in quarantine for a minimum of 14 days, if required.
"This is an unprecedented situation, but we can successfully manage it by taking decisions with a calm mind. Please take prudent health precautions and carefully review information and travel advisories," it said.
On Thursday, the American University said all classes will move to online platforms following the Spring break for the rest of the semester. The Spring break will be extended through Monday, March 16, and Tuesday, March 17, and classes are cancelled for those two days, the varsity said.
Harvard has asked its students not to return to campus after the Spring break ends on March 23, and said that classes will move online for the rest of the semester amid the mushrooming outbreak of the coronavirus.
"The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings," Harvard President Larry Bacow said.