ED Review (08/20/21)

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August 20, 2021


Back to School 

On August 18, President Biden issued a memorandum to Secretary Cardona directing him to use all available tools to ensure that governors and other leaders are providing a safe return to in-person learning for the nation’s children.  Students have experienced tremendous disruptions in their learning over the past two school years, but, with increased access to vaccinations for school staff and students age 12 and older, proven prevention and mitigation strategies, and unprecedented resources from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), all schools can and should open safely this fall for full-time, in-person instruction.  Nevertheless, some state governments have adopted laws and policies that interfere with the ability of schools and school districts to keep children safe during in-person learning -- with some going as far as blocking school officials from adopting safety protocols aligned with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Both state and local leaders must do everything possible to put students’ health and safety first and comply with legal obligations to their communities.  This memo will ensure the Department is doing everything it can to prevent any interference with school officials taking steps to keep all students safe in full-time, in-person learning, without compromising students’ health or the health of their families or communities. 

The Secretary previewed the President’s announcement in an interview with the New York Times, noting on Twitter: “Students first.” 

He also penned a Homeroom blog, titled “Meeting the President’s Call to Support the Safe and Sustained Reopening of Schools,” in which he outlined the Department’s commitment to protecting the rights of every student and supporting local districts that are protecting students and educators. 

Following letters he sent to Florida and Texas last week, the Secretary issued similar letters to six states -- Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah -- that have blocked masking mandates in schools, noting on Twitter: “We. Must. Protect. Children. 


Fork in the Road

As more students return to school campuses across the country -- some for the first time in 18 months -- Secretary Cardona has been on the air and on the ground emphasizing student and school staff health and safety and access to in-person learning. 

“We’re clearly at a fork in the road in this country,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”  “You’re either going to help students be in school in person and be safe, or the decisions you make will hurt students….  And while I understand the argument around not wanting to wear masks because we’re fatigued, without question students’ safety and staff’s safety come first” (video and transcript). 

“I’ve gotten my vaccine, and my children got their vaccine,” he added during a National Press Foundation virtual event.  “I know that vaccination is the best way to get our school safely reopened” (video and transcript). 

And, on NBC’s “TODAY,” he emphasized the importance of schools addressing students’ mental health needs (video and Homeroom blog). 

Meanwhile, the Secretary traveled to Boston, joining Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky for an intimate town hall hosted by the YMCA of Greater Boston and Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston to give students and families the chance to ask questions about plans for going back to school safely and address concerns about returning to the classroom. 

He also traveled to Topeka, Kansas, joining Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff for a visit to a school-based vaccine clinic and discussion about getting the community vaccinated (photos 1 and 2 and video). 

Plus, he joined remotely an announcement by Pennsylvania state leaders about new vaccine and testing initiatives to support schools. 

And, he traveled to New York City, joining Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten in the Bronx.  They observed and participated in social and emotional learning activities, partially funded under the ARP.  They also visited with student athletes, touting the importance of vaccinations for a healthy school year. 

A reminder of key resources:


American Rescue Plan 

Last week, the Department announced approval of six more ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund state plans -- Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Dakota, and South Carolina -- and distributed remaining ARP ESSER funding to those jurisdictions.  The plans detail how states are using and intend to use ARP ESSER funds to safely reopen and sustain the operation of schools and classrooms and address the essential needs of students, including by equitably expanding educational opportunities for students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  Earlier this year, the Department distributed two-thirds of ARP ESSER funding, or $81 billion, to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  The remaining third is being made available to states once plans are approved.  A total of 28 plans have been approved to date (see state-by-state press releases and highlights online). 

Secretary Cardona also issued a letter to Chief State School Officers and school district superintendents regarding additional supports to assist them with successful implementation of the ARP’s maintenance of effort and maintenance of equity requirements. 


While K-12 education got many headlines, the Department was active on the higher education front too. 

First, on August 6, the Department announced a final extension of the pause on student loan repayment, interest, and collections until January 31, 2022.  The agency believes this additional period and a definitive end date will allow borrowers to appropriately plan for the resumption of payments and reduce the risk of delinquency and defaults after restart.  Indeed, it continues its work to transition borrowers smoothly back into repayment, including by improving student loan servicing (President Biden’s statement). 

Second, that same day, the Department announced it will publish a notice in the Federal Register establishing a negotiated rulemaking committee that will meet virtually beginning in October to rewrite regulations for a range of issues, including Public Service Loan Forgiveness, income-contingent repayment plans, and Borrower Defense to Repayment.  These regulations will help borrowers manage repayment or receive a discharge or forgiveness of their federal student loans.  The committee will also establish regulations -- to be discussed in a subcommittee -- to implement Pell Grant eligibility for prison education programs.  (Note: The notice requests nominations for negotiators, subcommittee members, and advisors and sets dates for negotiation sessions.  The agency is especially interested in nominations from individuals and organizations that represent the perspective of historically underserved and/or low-income communities.) 

Third, on August 9, the Department released a new interpretation that revises and clarifies the agency’s position on the legality of state laws and regulations that govern various aspects of the servicing of federal student loans.  This action will help states enforce borrower bills of rights or similar laws.  It is part of Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) efforts to strengthen the student loan program by enhancing oversight and accountability for student loan servicers in order to protect students, borrowers, and taxpayers.  (Note: The prior interpretation broadly preempted state efforts to regulate student loan servicers and has been uniformly rejected by the courts.  The new interpretation is in effect, but the Department is also seeking public comment for 30 days so it can identify any additional changes that may be needed.) 

Fourth, FSA issued Final Program Review Determinations to two institutions -- Harrison College and RWM Fiber Options, Inc. -- identifying more than $2.5 million in liabilities in each instance. 

Fifth, the Departments of Education and Labor launched an initiative to help connect millions of unemployed Americans to postsecondary education, especially those displaced from their employment during the pandemic, by alerting higher education institutions and state workforce agencies about ways to help unemployment insurance (UI) beneficiaries access opportunities.  Specifically, Education updated its guidance to financial aid administrators about their authority to exercise “professional judgment” for individual financial aid applications and adjust recently unemployed applicants’ income to zero, ensuring that students receive the maximum benefit to which they are entitled toward their education, and Labor notified state workforce agencies that, in many cases, UI recipients are eligible for postsecondary education funding like federal student aid.  Additionally, Education created a new landing page to help UI beneficiaries identify offerings at institutions that are also eligible training providers under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). 

Sixth, over 323,000 borrowers who have a total and permanent disability (TPD) will receive more than $5.8 billion in automatic student loan discharges due to a new regulation announced by the Department.  The change will apply to borrowers identified through an existing data match with the Social Security Administration and begin with the September quarterly match.  The Department also announced two other policy items related to TPD.  First, it will indefinitely extend the policy announced in March to stop asking these borrowers to provide information on their earnings -- a process that results in the reinstatement of loans if and when borrowers do not respond -- beyond the end of the national emergency.  Second, it will pursue complete elimination of the three-year monitoring period required under current regulations during the upcoming negotiated rulemaking. 

Want more?  Join FSA’s Federal Policy Update webinar on August 25 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. 


The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced in a letter to local school superintendents that it will duly administer a 2021-22 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), marking the first time that it has conducted a CRDC -- including all public school districts and their schools -- two years in a row (for 2020-21 and 2021-22).  This added collection will help advance equity at a time when the nation’s educational landscape has been impacted by the pandemic and schools are receiving substantial new federal funding to address both new and long-standing challenges.  Data from the CRDC will inform ongoing decisions regarding further support that students, educators, and schools need to truly succeed and will assist OCR in meeting its mission to ensure schools and districts are complying with civil rights laws. 



“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures -- that is, children wearing masks in school -- into political disputes for their own political gain.  Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in school.  They’re setting a dangerous tone….  This isn’t about politics.  It’s about keeping our children safe.  This is about taking on the virus together, united.  I’ve made it clear that I will stand with those who are trying to do the right thing….  [T]hat’s why, today, I am directing the Secretary of Education -- an educator himself -- to take additional steps to protect our children.  This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal actions, if appropriate, against governors [and other officials] who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators….  Let’s follow the educators and the scientists who know a lot more about how to teach our children and keep them safe than any politician.  This Administration is always going to take the side of our children.” 

-- President Joseph Biden (8/18/21), from remarks on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic 


Throughout this month, the Department is hosting virtual listening sessions to support an exchange of ideas around the opportunities for federal climate leadership.  These sessions will inform the agency’s Climate Adaptation Plan and subsequent implementation and explore the connection between climate, safe reopening of schools, and ongoing efforts to advance educational equity.  The remaining topics, dates, and times are as follows: Incentivizing Outdoor and Environmental Education (August 23, 2 p.m. ET) and Postsecondary Sustainability (August 30, 2 p.m. ET).  All are welcome.  Please register with name, title, and organization to ED.Green.Ribbon.Schools@ed.gov. 

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