Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education released guidance Thursday afternoon for schools to navigate closures amid the spread of novel coronavirusWith more schools expected to close for a minimum of 14 days, the department is saying it will consider providing states with one-year waivers of assessment requirements under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most recently reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act, if they have been impacted by the pandemic’s “extraordinary circumstances.” 
  • Specifically, the department says it will consider waiving for states the 95% assessment participation rate required under ESEA, which is factored into academic achievement calculations, in addition to excluding chronic absenteeism rates from accountability reports. Other areas of accountability impacted by COVID-19 could also be considered for waivers. The department suggests schools consider adjusting or extending testing windows. 
  • The guidance also stresses that schools offering remote learning in case of school closures must provide “equal access to the same opportunities” for students with disabilities, including free appropriate public education (FAPE). If students with disabilities are absent due to infection by the virus and schools remain open, schools must also continue providing education for those students.

Dive Insight:

Additional guidance from the department urges administrators to keep in mind that the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires protection of students’ education records while working with health agencies to manage COVID-19-related issues.

But the Ed Department clarified that, under the privacy law, administrators can share certain information with other parties without consent if the health or safety of others is in jeopardy. Based on the guidelines, the department will let states and districts determine whether coronavirus-related health concerns warrant sidestepping consent requirements under FERPA

The guidance comes as the coronavirus outbreak pushes more schools to close or transition online for remote learning. On Wednesday, Seattle Public Schools announced it will close for a minimum of two weeks with no e-learning option, but will look for ways to continue district services including meal distribution. 

The state superintendent of Washington, where the outbreak has hit hardest so far, suggested in guidance to districts to close schools with no e-learning option if districts determine they cannot provide equitable education for all students.

If districts decide to close schools with no distance learning, states also often waive loss of instructional time due to emergencies. 

The federal government is working on passing other waivers that would make possible continuing district services in cases of closure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, announced this week flexibilities for school meals in case districts close or move online. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the agency will allow schools to leverage their participation in the agency’s summer meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students during the outbreak. 

“Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting,” the agency said in a press release. “However, in a public health emergency, the law allows USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation.”

The flexibility was effective immediately and will remain in effect until June 30.

Wednesday, the House Committee on Education and Labor introduced three pieces of legislation that would make it easier for schools to distribute meals and for families to access them. 

One bipartisan proposal led by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) and James Comer (R-Kentucky) would create a nationwide waiver authority to allow school officials to distribute food in any number of settings across all nutrition programs, and would allow for flexibility on what’s included in meals if the food supply or procurement are disrupted. The waiver would apply to schools that have closed due to COVID-19 and those that have transitioned to remote learning. 

The legislation will be included in a larger package expected to pass the House and that lawmakers hope will be picked up by the Senate.

In a letter sent to educators last week by the Ed Department’s Office for Civil Rights, assistant secretary of the office Kenneth L. Marcus warned education leaders of rising racism against individuals and students of Asian descent as a result of the outbreak. Marcus told administrators to “take special care” to ensure all students feel safe.

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