ED Review (09/03/21)

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September 3, 2021


Back to School 

In a recent press release, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered a number of health tips for a successful school year for students, teachers, school staff, and their families.  (Reminder: The CDC has specific COVID-19 guidance for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education.) 

For parents and caregivers, the CDC also published a list of questions to ask schools to learn more about COVID-19 precautions and responses to more frequently asked questions. 

As part of its interactive Return to School Roadmap, the Department released “Strategies for Using American Rescue Plan Funding to Address the Impact of Lost Instructional Time,” a resource to support educators as they work to continuously improve their instructional strategies.  While the pandemic has impacted all students, it has particularly deepened pre-pandemic disparities in access and opportunities for students of color, multilingual learners, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students.  Schools and educators may use American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to respond to the urgent needs of students, address gaps in educational opportunity, and build local capacity to sustain meaningful and effective teaching and learning. 

Furthermore, the Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) sent a letter to its state and local partners reiterating its commitment to ensuring children with disabilities and their families have successful early intervention and educational experiences in the 2021-22 school year.  This letter outlines questions and answers as students return to in-person learning.  The Q&As released with the letter is the first in a series and reaffirms the importance of appropriate implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) child find obligations, which requires the identification, location, and evaluation of all children with disabilities. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for individuals 16 years of age and older.  “Now, I know that parents are concerned about COVID-19 cases among their children,” President Biden said during remarks at the White House marking the FDA’s approval.  “You have the tools to keep your child safer, and two of those tools, above all, are available to you.  One, make sure that everyone around your child, who can be vaccinated, is vaccinated: parents, adults, teens.  Two, make sure your child is masked when they leave home.” 


School Masks 

This week, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) opened directed investigations in five states exploring whether state prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.  OCR sent letters to the Chief State School Officers of Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah, outlining how prohibitions of universal indoor masking prevent school districts from implementing policies that they determine are necessary to protect students from exposure to COVID-19 -- including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability. 

The investigations will explore each state’s compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees qualified students with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education in elementary and secondary school.  This includes the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs.  The investigations will also explore whether state policies violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems and institutions. 

During the investigation, OCR is a neutral factfinder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from State Education Agencies (SEAs) and other sources as appropriate prior to reaching determinations on these matters.  Opening an investigation does not imply that OCR has decided whether there has been a violation of a law OCR enforces. 

OCR has not opened investigations in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, or Texas because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.  Districts there should be able to implement universal indoor masking in schools to protect the health and safety of students and staff.  However, the Department will continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take further action if state leaders prevent schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if current court decisions were to be reversed. 

Last week, in response to the Florida State Board of Education’s orders to the Alachua and Broward county school districts, Secretary Cardona spoke directly with the local superintendents to reassure them that the President and his Administration stand with them and with educators who put student and staff health and education first. 


American Rescue Plan 

Since the last ED Review issue, the Department announced approval of five more ARP ESSER Fund state plans -- Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, and Minnesota -- 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 operations 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 33 plans have now been approved (see state-by-state press releases and highlights online). 

Separately, Institute for Education Sciences (IES) Director Mark Schneider provided an update on how IES is using the $100 million it received through the ARP to invest in research grants, gather data through a School Pulse survey, and make sure that the information generated about accelerating learning is translated into forms that are useful, usable, and used. 


It was another busy period on the higher education front as well. 

First, on August 20, the Department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office announced it has retroactively waived interest on federal student loans held by more than 47,000 current and former active duty servicemembers, aided by a data matching agreement with the Department of Defense that substantially improves access to the interest waiver benefit. 

Second, on August 24, the Department rescinded the partial relief methodology for approved borrower defense to repayment claims, released in 2017 and 2019 and updated in 2020, and declared it will assess approved claims based on the merits under the applicable regulations, applying a presumption of full relief as a starting point. 

Third, on August 26, the Department announced it will make $1.1 billion in closed school discharges available to an additional 115,000 borrowers who attended the now-defunct ITT Technical Institute.  This decision is based on a new review of the problems leading up to ITT’s closure.  It is estimated that 43% of these borrowers are currently in default.  (Note: This action brings the total amount of loan discharges approved by the agency since January 2021 to $9.5 billon, involving over 563,000 borrowers.) 

Moreover, in a letter to students, educators, and other stakeholders, the Department announced it will no longer enforce part of the 2020 amendments to the Title IX regulations -- applying only to postsecondary institutions -- regarding the prohibition against statements not subject to cross-examination (see OCR’s blog post). 


September 17 is Constitution Day/Citizenship Day, commemorating the September 17, 1787, signing of the U.S. Constitution.  In recognition, Congress has mandated that every educational institution receiving federal funding hold an educational program about this seminal document.  To assist students and educators in their studies, the National Archives and Records Administration offers key resources, including a free online version of its U.S. Constitution Workshop.  Likewise, free online resources are available from the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Census Bureau. 


  • As the remnants of Hurricane Ida moved off shore, states from the Gulf Coast to New England are assessing the damage.  The storm’s flooding and tornadoes mid-week came days after causing widespread wind, storm surges, and flooding in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff and other federal agencies are working throughout the country to support ongoing hurricane, flood, and wildfire response efforts (fact sheet).
  • Secretary Cardona joined West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch for the state’s announcement that back-to-school vaccination clinics will be held this fall in all 55 counties.
  • The Secretary also joined U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin for a recent visit to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, where they discussed measures within the President’s Build Back Better Agenda that provide students with pathways to affordable higher education -- including two years of free community college (photos).
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it received requests for $5.14 billion to fund 9.1 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections under the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program.  The first filing window, which closed August 13, attracted applications from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Outlying Areas.  During the second filing window, from September 28 to October 13, eligible schools and libraries may apply for financial support to purchase equipment and services for students, school staff, and library patrons with unmet needs.
  • The latest “Lessons from the Field” webinar focused on strategies for reengaging preK-12 students.
  • Over the last six months, Rural Tech Project finalist teams have developed thorough plans for novel, competency-based technology programs.
  • IES Director Schneider also expounded on some of his takeaways from the ASU+GSV Summit and the implications for educational research.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has added data from the 2013 and 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy Study -- an online assessment that measures eighth-grade capacities in information communications technologies -- and the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey -- a survey about teachers, teaching, and learning environments -- to the International Data Explorer. 


“We’re going to use our Office for Civil Rights to investigate any claims that come forward to make sure that students’ rights are kept.  And we’re also going to ensure that the funds are available to those districts that are doing the right thing to make sure students come in safely.  Withholding funds doesn’t usually work.  If anything, it adds insult to injury to these students who are trying to get into the classroom, and to these parents who have told me repeatedly, ‘I just want my children back in school.  That’s where they learn best.’  I’ve spoken to parents of students with disabilities, and I’ve spoken to students.  I’ve spoken to athletes in the last week-and-a-half, two weeks….  They just want to go back to school safely.  Let’s get politics out of the way.  Let the educational leaders and health experts make the decisions around how to keep students and staff safe.” 

-- Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (8/22/21), on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” (video and transcript) 


On September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance, volunteers will spruce up schools, paint and refurbish homes, run food drives, and support veterans, soldiers, military families, and first responders.  (Note: This year is the 20th anniversary of that tragic day.) 

National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) celebrates the many contributions, diverse cultures, and extensive histories of the American Latino community. 

The Department invites governors or their designees to nominate up to two classified school employees for the second-annual Recognizing Inspiring School Employee (RISE) Award by November 1.  Those working in public or private PK-12 schools as paraprofessionals or in clerical and administrative services, transportation services, food and nutrition services, custodial and maintenance services, security services, health and student services, technical services, and skilled trades are eligible for this recognition.  The Secretary will ultimately select a national honoree from among all the state nominees (blog post). 

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