Special COVID-19 Edition of Washington Update - March 20, 2020

March 20, 2020

Today’s edition of Washington Update is an abbreviated version that provides brief updates on several key topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic and higher education. This issue also provides access to tools and resources that have been developed to help institutions through this unprecedented national emergency.

Events are evolving day-to-day. Guidance continues to be issued and Congress is working on federal relief packages right now. In addition to efforts to secure broad based financial relief for both institutions and students, we are also working on bills and executive actions to address more specific issues, such as accreditation, FERPA, SEVIS, GI bill benefits, mental health concerns, and easing of the federal Financial Responsibility Standards for institutions. 

Student Aid Flexibility: The Senate is currently working on its next coronavirus relief package.  In working with Congress, NAICU members have been focused on highlighting the need for: 1) emergency grant funds for students; 2) technology assistance; 3) grants or zero interest federal loans; and 4) Relaxation of reporting and audit requirements, including temporary suspension of the Federal Financial Responsibility system.

NAICU also coordinated with other associations in higher education to develop a community-wide case statement that mirrors the four priority areas listed above.  

Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Education amended the guidance it published on March 5 to include a new four-page “Q&A Document” to help guide compliance efforts. Most of the Q&A focuses on maintaining federal student aid compliance in these evolving times.

Financial Responsibility Standards:  Private colleges of all sizes and types could face a precipitous decline in their Federal Financial Ratios as a result of both coronavirus-related endowment and revenue losses and increased costs.  NAICU is encouraging the Department of Education to suspend the test for at least three years and NC-SARA to decouple passage of the federal test from their eligibility criteria for participation in the state distance education compact.  

Accreditation: The Department of Education has released two guidance documents that address accreditation requirements. The first set of guidance provides broad authority to accreditors to waive distance education review requirements so they can transition quickly to online instruction. The second set of guidance gives institutions additional flexibility to extend the term of accreditation for institutions seeking renewal and provide good-cause extensions to institutions on a show-cause order or probation.

FERPA: Agency guidance clarifies the circumstances under which institutions can release personally identifiable student information without consent under the statute’s “health and safety emergency” exception if the disclosure is necessary to protect the health or safety of students or others. In general, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions may release such information to appropriate parties, such as law enforcement officials, public health officials, trained medical personnel, and parents. As always, institutions may disclose information without consent if the disclosure is in a non-personally identifiable form, e.g., notifying the campus community that a member of the community has tested positive for COVID-19, so long as that individual is not identified. 

International Students/ Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP): The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued guidance for 3 specific scenarios:
  1. If a school closes and no online or alternative learning option exists, students can remain active in SEVIS if they resume coursework when the school re-opens.  
  2. If a school temporarily stops in-person classes, but implements on-line or alternative learning and the nonimmigrant student stays in the U.S. 
  3. Under the same scenario, the nonimmigrant student departs the U.S.  
In both the second and third scenarios, the guidance is the same.  Students who participate online will stay active in SEVIS.  In addition, SEVP will allow F and J Visa students to temporarily count online classes toward a full course of study in excess of current limits – only for the duration of the crisis.

All guidance applies to current SEVIS students and does not apply to new students.  Schools must notify SEVP of COVID-19 procedural changes within 10 business days of implementation.  Instructions for completing that notice are available on the NAICU website under Department of Homeland Security guidance.

Veterans: Relaxing some of the regulatory and statutory restrictions under the GI Bill is a top priority of colleges and the federal government.  The biggest progress to date was congressional approval of a bill that would allow veterans to continue to receive their full housing allowance even if their colleges have moved them to a fully online format.  President Trump is expected to sign the legislation.

Mental Health: A major concern has emerged with the authority for college mental health counselors to continue to serve out-of-state students who have been sent home because of the Coronavirus. Most counselors are only authorized to serve students in the states in which the college is located.  Addressing this issue involves overriding a complex array of individual state laws.

NAICU COVID-19 Resource Page & Webinar: This afternoon, NAICU hosted a webinar that provided more detail and analysis on each of these issues. NAICU also continues to maintain and update on a daily basis its dedicated webpage that provides current information, guidance, and news coverage on the coronavirus. 
 

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