In today’s Federal Flash, a flurry of activity across multiple federal agencies. First, we cover the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) eleventh-hour reversal to extend waivers that have made it easier for school districts to serve free school meals, plus the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) new guidance that ends state reimbursement for cloth face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools. We also have all the details on Secretary Betsy DeVos’s letter to chief state school officers about spring 2021 assessments.
USDA Extends School Meal Waivers
In a last-minute decision, the USDA reversed its previous position and extended waivers that allow school districts to more easily serve free meals to students during the pandemic. Specifically, the waivers enable schools to operate their meal programs during the school year as they do over the summer and provide free meals without burdening families with paperwork to verify eligibility. The waivers, which were set to expire this month, have been extended through December 31.
As we discussed on our last Federal Flash, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue intended to let the waivers expire, reasoning that the agency lacked authority to implement any extension. But pressure from school administrators, education and school nutrition advocates, and members of Congress—including Republicans—seems to have persuaded him to change course.
House Education Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) applauded the USDA’s decision but called it a “temporary solution,” urging the USDA to extend the waivers for the entire 2020–2021 school year. Perdue, however, is contending that there isn’t sufficient funding to do so—which could make school nutrition a top priority as Congress returns to negotiations on another coronavirus relief package.
FEMA Ends State Reimbursement for PPE
Starting September 15, cash-strapped states must pay for the cost of cloth face coverings and other PPE for schools—expenses states previously were reimbursed for by FEMA. Under FEMA’s new guidance, cloth face masks and PPE in nonemergency settings will be classified as “increased operating costs” for public services and will not be covered by FEMA’s Public Assistance Program. Governors and mayors, chief state school officers, district and school leaders, and teachers’ unions had all urged FEMA to continue reimbursement for PPE in schools.
Instead, the government is offering schools assistance for PPE through other agencies. A Department of Health and Human Services program, for example, will distribute up to 125 million cloth face masks to schools with an emphasis on high-need students and on schools providing in-person instruction. But it is unclear if these measures will fully meet schools’ needs or enable them to comply with CDC guidelines for reopening.
FEMA’s decision comes less than two weeks after Trump Administration guidance that deemed teachers and other school staff “critical infrastructure workers” as part of the president’s continued push for schools to resume in-person instruction this fall. Though that guidance is nonbinding, it has prompted some states and districts to enact policies to declare teachers essential workers, meaning that they’ll be expected to continue to go to work even if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.
CARES Act Funding for Private Schools
For the second time in a month, a federal judge has ruled against Secretary DeVos’s rule on providing equitable services to private school students under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The rule encourages districts to set aside CARES dollars for private school students not as they do under Title I but based on the total number of students in private schools, regardless of income.
U.S. District Judge James Donato for the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction blocking the U.S. Department of Education (ED) from enforcing the rule in seven states and Washington, DC, and in school districts in Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and San Francisco while he hears arguments in the case—calling ED’s logic “’interpretative jiggery-pokery’ in the extreme.” Judge Donato joins a U.S. district judge in Washington state in denouncing the rule, though there are lingering questions whether the prior injunction applies nationwide or only in Washington state. We’ll continue following these cases as they move through the courts.
ESSA Waivers Unlikely for 2021 Assessments
Last week, Secretary DeVos sent a letter to chief state school officers following several requests for waivers from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) testing requirements in the upcoming school year. As a reminder, ED—reiterated by provisions in the CARES Act—allowed all states to suspend their assessments last spring and pause their school accountability systems. The Secretary’s letter, however, makes it clear that this is not the plan for the year ahead.
Secretary DeVos highlights how assessments are vital tools to support students and provide transparency to parents about their child’s learning and the schools in their communities—tools that will be more critical than ever given unprecedented disruptions to schooling from COVID-19, especially for historically underserved students. DeVos also cites a bipartisan letter from All4Ed and other groups stating, “The challenges posed by this crisis only underscore the value of collecting and reporting on a standard measure of student performance. Leaders should not have to continue to steer recovery efforts in the dark.”
While DeVos’s letter makes clear that states should not expect another round of waivers from ESSA’s testing requirements, ED is willing to be flexible and work with states to rethink their assessment systems and, in particular, reconsider how or whether assessment results from spring 2021 are used for accountability purposes.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Limits DACA
Finally, we have an update on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As we covered on Federal Flash earlier this summer, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump Administration’s attempt to end DACA, which allows undocumented youth who arrived in the United States as children to pursue higher education and work without fear of deportation. Six weeks later, however, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced that the agency would limit DACA renewals to one year instead of two and continue to not accept any new applicants—a move immigrant advocates, lawyers, and lawmakers denounced as conflicting with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
In response to Acting Secretary Wolf’s announcement, both DACA beneficiaries and attorneys general from sixteen states and the District of Columbia submitted amended complaints, urging the court to block the Administration’s continued efforts to scale back DACA. Though the Trump Administration promised to end DACA, it has been unable to do so given a flurry of lawsuits. We’ll continue to monitor these legal actions as the November election nears and as Wolf—who is slated to be formally nominated as secretary—faces Senate confirmation.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the September 8 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations at All4Ed.