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Federal Flash: What Federal Policymakers Have Done to Help Schools Respond to Coronavirus

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March 30, 2020 07:20 pm

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Loyal viewers might notice that this Federal Flash, just like so many other aspects of daily life, looks a little different. With All4Ed staffers staying home like most Americans, we are committed to continue sharing the most critical education updates with you from our home offices, kitchen tables, and comfiest armchairs. We’ve also created a webpage for all of our coronavirus-related resources and information at all4ed.org/coronavirus.

For this edition of the Federal Flash, we’ll cover what you need to know about the federal government’s efforts to support education during the coronavirus crisis. We’ll walk through executive actions taken, or not taken, by the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission, and then turn to legislation passed by Congress in response to COVID-19. A lot’s been happening, so—spoiler alert—this edition of Federal Flash will be a little longer than usual.

U.S. Department of Education

According to Education Week, statewide closures are in effect in every state except Iowa, Nebraska, and Maine. At this point in time, most states have closed schools through some point in April, although a handful have extended closures into May or until further notice. However, six states, Alabama, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Virginia, have announced that schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic year.

While school buildings may have closed, districts are still hard at work grappling with how to ensure that instruction and other essential services, like school meals, continue. For most districts, this means turning to online learning and operating grab-and-go meal programs as many districts do during the summer.

As we told viewers in our last Federal Flash, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) began to help states and districts manage through the crisis by issuing guidance in several areas, but it quickly became clear that these resources, though helpful, were insufficient. Since then, ED released further guidance to clarify how districts can provide inclusive online instruction and continue to meet requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students with disabilities.

In addition, ED created an expedited process for states to apply for a one-year waiver from annual testing and related accountability and reporting under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ESSA. However, given that state tests provide essential information to parents about whether their child is on track—and are a key measure used to identify equity gaps and schools where students are struggling—we did not want these requirements to be waived lightly. All4Ed joined with national education and civil rights groups to urge that state flexibility not come at the expense of educational equity. In particular, we wanted to ensure that all schools identified for support under ESSA in the current school year continue to be identified and receive those supports in the 2020–21 school year if state testing and accountability were paused.

Fortunately, this assurance was included in the expedited waiver process announced by Secretary DeVos. All schools currently in comprehensive, targeted, or additional targeted support in states with waivers will continue to be identified for support and implement evidence-based interventions next school year. As of March 27, forty-seven states have requested a waiver and forty-six have received initial approval—and we anticipate the ranks to expand to all fifty states and Washington, D.C. Moving forward, all of ED’s COVID-19 resources can be found at ed.gov/coronavirus.

Federal Communications Commission: Homework Gap

With schools closed across the country, one of the major concerns across the education community is the homework gap. Classes are moving online, which could leave behind millions of students without high-speed broadband at home. In fact, 41 percent of school districts said they couldn’t provide remote learning for every child in their district if they had to close due to coronavirus, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center earlier this month.

The good news is that the homework gap is a solvable problem. The bad news is that it’s not being solved! The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) runs the federal government’s largest education technology program called E-rate. This program provides funding to schools and libraries to pay for internet access. The program also could be used to pay for things like hotspots and connected devices that could be loaned to students so they can participate in online learning, if the FCC decides to do so.

Unfortunately, the commission hasn’t, at least not yet. Making matters worse, Congress also didn’t provide funding for home internet access in the stimulus package that passed last week—we’ll get to the details on that bill in a moment.

More than 7,500 superintendents, school board members, teachers, principals, education technology directors, and others wrote to the FCC last week, calling on the commission to expand home internet access through E-rate. We’re going to continue to urge the FCC to do the right thing for kids and hope you’ll join us. To find out how you can help, visit futureready.org/homeinternet.

Congress: CARES Act

Finally, Congress has been busy drafting legislation to help states cope with the coronavirus, including disruptions in K–12 and higher education. Two initial, smaller stimulus packages were less focused on education and provided just over $10 billion in emergency funding combined. However, it’s worth noting that the second addressed flexibility for school meal programs, enabling schools to provide students meals in a variety of settings and allowing states to grant food stamp, or SNAP, benefits to students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

A third, much larger stimulus bill was signed by President Trump last week. The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES, includes nearly $31 billion in emergency funding for K–12 and higher education. Initially, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had included zero funding for education in the bill. So even though $31 billion is less than House Democrats sought, and may prove inadequate to address the full scope of state and local education needs long-term, it is a significant step in the right direction.

Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund: $3 billion

The $31 billion is divided into three main funding streams. The smallest, about $3 billion, is arguably the most flexible. It provides money to governors to support the hardest-hit school districts and institutions of higher education, as well as other education-related entities that provide critical services, like early childhood education. The amount each governor receives will be based 60 percent on the state’s relative share of the population between the ages of 5 and 24 years and 40 percent on the state’s relative share of Title I–eligible children.

Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund: $14 billion

The largest funding stream is the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund at about $14 billion. Ninety percent of these funds will be distributed as grants to institutions of higher education based 75 percent on their relative share of low-income Pell Grant recipients and 25 percent on their share of non-Pell recipients. Colleges and universities can use these funds in a number of ways, but at least half must go to emergency financial aid for students. The remaining 10 percent of the Higher Education Relief Fund will be awarded to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions and to small institutions impacted by the pandemic. In addition, federal student loan borrowers will be given a six-month reprieve from monthly payments, without interest accruing, under the CARES Act.

Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund: $13 billion

State education agencies will receive almost as much funding as higher education through an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund of roughly $13 billion. Grants will be made to state education agencies (SEAs) based on their relative share of Title I funding. State departments of education, in turn, must subgrant at least 90 percent of the funds to districts, also based on the Title I formula. Districts can use the emergency dollars on any allowable activity under ESSA, IDEA, Perkins, or the McKinney-Vento program for students experiencing homelessness. The CARES Act also includes other uses of funds tailored to the coronavirus crisis, such as providing school meals, online learning, and special education during school closures; purchasing technology and connectivity; and implementing summer learning programs.

All of this funding does come with a few strings attached, notably maintenance of effort or MOE. To apply for funding, states must include an assurance that they will maintain state support for K–12 and higher education in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 at a level that is not less than the average level they provided across the past three years. But Secretary DeVos can waive this requirement.

Speaking of waivers, the CARES Act addresses flexibility from ESSA requirements that states and districts may need to manage through the coronavirus crisis. In addition to codifying the one-year pause of state testing, accountability, and related reporting already announced by Secretary DeVos, the CARES Act creates an expedited, thirty-day process for districts to apply for waivers. For example, a district may apply to waive the requirement that at least 20 percent of Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, or Title IV-Part A, be used to support a well-rounded curriculum, so that more of the district’s grant can be spent on making effective use of technology. Districts also can ask to waive the provision that no more than 15 percent of these funds can be spent on device purchases. Other flexibilities under this thirty-day process will help districts carry over a greater share of Title I funds from this school year to next and provide a reprieve from local MOE requirements. We’ll keep you posted as more states and districts request flexibility, as well as on the application process and timeline for governors and SEAs to apply for funding.

That’s all for today. Thanks for trying out this new format with us, and we’ll do our best to keep you informed on key federal education updates throughout the coronavirus crisis here and at all4ed.org/coronavirus. Stay safe. Stay home. Thanks for reading.  

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the March 30 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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