NAICU Washington Update

Department of Education Develops Tools to Help with and Analyze Pandemic Effects

June 11, 2021

In an effort to help colleges navigate the next academic year, the Department of Education issued new resources to help overcome issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as an analysis of the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable students.  The resources include a handbook on safely reopening colleges and a report on the disparate effects of the pandemic on America’s students, from early childhood to college.  

In consultation with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Department issued the ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 3, Strategies for Safe Operation and Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education Students, Faculty and Staff, while the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued the report Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students.  

The handbook takes a holistic approach in making recommendations for institutions of higher education on how to manage safe in-person teaching and learning. It also provides continuing options for online learning as needed, while acknowledging student and faculty needs have changed over the course of the pandemic and that campus communities have suffered from college lock-downs. 

Throughout the handbook, the Department makes clear what activities can be funded using institutional Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF). It is particularly helpful that the handbook reiterates the applicable HEERF provisions and allowable uses of funds for specific reopening recommendations (pages 50-54). 

Across the handbook, recommendations, but not mandates, are made for how colleges can address the new normal of reopening during the pandemic. For in-person teaching and learning, the recommendations on how to mitigate coronavirus while being together on campus includes strategies such as offering and promoting vaccinations, promoting consistent and correct use of masks, encouraging physical and social distancing and other healthy environment practices, and providing testing and contact tracing programs. 

For online learning, the handbook emphasizes the need for colleges to continue to maintain student engagement to ensure retention and completion, to be flexible, innovative and creative with faculty development and course delivery, and to explore federal broadband expansions, Wi-Fi and other expansions of connectivity for students, faculty and staff. 

Students have experienced unprecedented change to their educational trajectory, as well as their social, emotional, mental and physical health because of the pandemic.  Rather than providing a legal analysis, the OCR report reviews data-driven accounts that reinforce the concern that the pandemic has widened existing educational inequities in “access, opportunity, achievement and outcomes” for low-income and other marginalized and underserved students. 

The handbook acknowledges these circumstances, while making recommendations for what colleges can do to ameliorate these issues for students as they transition to the next semester. For student financial needs, colleges are encouraged to continue direct communication with financial aid recipients to ensure any changes in family income are reflected in the assistance they receive, and to make additional emergency grants available to students as needed via the HEERF funds. 

For basic needs, colleges are encouraged to provide direct assistance, if possible, or information on how to access assistance for food, housing, transportation and other basic needs insecurities. How colleges can provide direct support or access to support for health care, child care and safe environments for students, faculty and staff is also included. 

Finally, as many campuses repopulate with students, faculty, and staff, the handbook reminds and encourages colleges to be good neighbors and direct partners with their communities. Colleges can be partners in community efforts for virus mitigation, relief needs and local economic recovery. 

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