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Federal Flash: Coronavirus, Closures, and Congress

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March 13, 2020 04:15 pm

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In today’s Federal Flash, we’ll discuss what federal policymakers are doing to support students in the midst of school closures due to the coronavirus. We’ll cover action being taken in Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. House of Representatives: Families First Coronavirus Response Act

Schools are closing across the country in response to coronavirus and many classes are moving online. The sudden change is disruptive for everyone, but it’s especially concerning for students from low-income families who rely on school not only for education, but also for food. Yesterday, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to help. House leaders are now negotiating with the White House on a final bill.

The legislation as introduced by House Democrats would provide food stamps or, more formally, assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to families with children who would ordinarily receive free or reduced-price meals in schools. To be eligible, the child’s school has to be closed for at least five days. The legislation also provides flexibility in how the national school lunch program is administered in order to get nutritious meals to as many children as possible. For example, the bill would allow childcare centers to serve meals and allow flexibility in the types of food children receive if there is a disruption to the food supply. A complete summary of the legislation introduced by House Democrats, including provisions related to paid leave, is available here.  The final details of the bill are still being negotiated, but it could pass the House as early as today.

U.S. Senate: Supporting Students in Response to Coronavirus Act

Over in the Senate, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the leading Democrat on the Senate Education committee, introduced legislation that would provide $3 billion to support schools and colleges. School districts would have flexibility in how they use the funding, ranging from sanitizing school buildings to purchasing devices to support online learning during school closures. The bill also provides emergency financial aid to help college students cover basic needs like housing and childcare. It also would exempt college students from having to pay back federal loans and Pell Grants if their education was interrupted by coronavirus.

Congress planned to be in recess next week, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) postponed the Senate’s spring break to address the coronavirus crisis. This means a final bill could reach the president’s desk soon.

We’re hoping the final legislation that passes Congress will help students who are moving to online learning as a result of corona closures. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) estimates that 14 percent of children had no internet access at home in 2017, with major equity gaps—12 percent of White students had no internet access at home, compared to nearly 20 percent of Black and Latino students and 37 percent of Native students.

Federal Communications Commission

There also could be action from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC runs the federal government’s largest education technology program called E-rate, which funds internet access in schools and libraries, as well as a program called Lifeline that can support home internet access.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent the FCC a letter urging the commission to find ways that existing programs can “be used to facilitate at-home connectivity for students to keep up in class should remote school work become necessary due to COVID-19 closures.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who’s been a strong advocate for closing the homework gap, issued a statement yesterday saying, “The coronavirus is already exposing hard truths about the digital divide, but the Federal Communications Commission has the power to help. … The FCC should identify how it can use its authority to provide Wi-Fi hotspots for loan for students whose schools have closed their doors.”

U.S. Department of Education

While policy is pending in Congress and the FCC, ED released guidance to districts and states regarding the sharing of information between schools, public health officials, and others during a time of emergency under FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. ED also released guidance on ensuring students with disabilities continue to receive services in the event of school closures. Finally, ED described flexibility it could provide regarding assessments and accountability, saying it would be open to a targeted one-year waiver of several testing and school identification requirements if necessary due to school closures. This information and more is available at ed.gov/coronavirus.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the March 13 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The video version is embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email alliance@all4ed.org.

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