Alerts and Updates

U.S. Department of Education Issues COVID-19 Guidance to Schools

March 12, 2020

The Department considers its March 5 guidance to be interim, and may follow up with additional guidance addressing these and other topics.

Due to the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that institutions of higher education consider postponing or canceling upcoming study abroad or foreign exchange programs. However, this advice has raised pressing questions about how this would affect Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) federal financial aid and a student’s ability to finish the term if a program is interrupted or canceled. In response, on March 5, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) offered guidance permitting temporary flexibility and clarifying how higher education institutions can continue to comply with Title IV regulations for students whose activities are impacted by COVID-19. 

Please note that on March 10, 2020, Senator Patricia Murray and 32 other senators wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking additional guidance from the Department on a number of additional issues including:

  • Online educational options for students without home computers or high speed internet access;
  • Assistance with ensuring accessible online instructional materials for students with disabilities;
  • Continuity of mental health services;
  • Ensuring quality of online education including guidance around the “regular and substantive” online interaction requirement;
  • Greater flexibility for Satisfactory Academic Progress measurement;
  • Proactive warnings to students regarding return of Title IV procedures for mid-term withdrawals to avoid unnecessary federal aid expenditures for students;
  • Loan deferment and forbearance opportunities for students with interrupted income;
  • How to report withdrawal dates to avoid triggering repayment obligation grace period; and
  • Institutional partnerships with non-Title IV entities.

The Department considers its March 5 guidance to be interim, and may follow up with additional guidance addressing these and other topics. The timing of such guidance is unknown at this time.

FSA’s March 5 announcement covers five scenarios:

  1. A student is enrolled in a travel abroad program and was called back or was never able to start the program.
  2. A student was enrolled in a class or program that was canceled due to the virus and is no longer considered to be a full-time student because of inability to earn sufficient credits.
  3. A student is quarantined and misses class, or a student has the coronavirus.
  4. A campus temporarily stops offering classes to prevent the spread of the virus.
  5. A foreign school temporarily suspends operations.

Note: The scenarios do not include students who have not yet enrolled or whose programs have not yet started.

Temporary Use of Distance Education Permitted

FSA’s guidance temporarily allows U.S. institutions (not foreign schools) to use online instruction without going through the regular approval process. In doing so, the Department also makes clear that accreditors can waive their distance education review requirements. However, it is up to each accreditor to announce that policy. The guidance states that instructors must initiate and be able to document substantive communication with students, either individually or collectively, on a regular basis.

Institutions can temporarily move classes online until they are given the “all clear” to resume classroom instruction; enter into temporary agreements with other schools for students to complete courses; ask the Department for permission for a temporary, reduced academic year; and/or or accreditors can waive their requirements for students to complete a certain number of credits at an institution to finish their degrees. Again, the flexibility offered to accrediting agencies is dependent upon the agencies agreeing to adopt such policies.

Clock Hour Programs Not Fully Addressed

Importantly for schools that measure attendance in clock hours, this flexibility is not available for courses that lead to state licensure if the licensure body will not accept distance learning courses or hours or give credit for them toward the number of hours a student must complete. Therefore, clock hour institutions will want to work with their state licensure agencies to urge them to accept online learning options on an emergency basis or risk having enrolled students deemed Title IV ineligible if part or all of an affected program is provided through distance education.

Federal Student Aid Funds

The Department will also allow students to request a leave of absence and let institutions keep the Title IV funds to use when the students return, as long as they come back within the current length of an acceptable leave of absence, which is 180 days. For students who have not yet started their programs, the institution must return all Title IV funds and all Direct Loan funds credited to a student’s account for the period. Institutions should also notify students’ loan servicers that the student did not begin attendance to protect them from entering repayment within six months of withdrawing.

The Department will also allow schools to continue paying student federal work-study wages during a temporary coronavirus-related closure. However, the Department does not have the authority to waive the requirement to award Title IV funds based on a student’s enrollment status if they fall below full-time enrollment or 12 credit hours.

For additional updates, please continue to check the Department’s resource page.

About Duane Morris

Duane Morris has created a COVID-19 Strategy Team to help employers plan, respond to and address this fast-moving situation. Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information. Prior Alerts on the topic are available on the team’s webpage.

For Further Information

If you have any questions related to this Alert, please contact Katherine D. Brodie, Edward Cramp, Kristina Gill, Brandi A. Taylor any of the attorneys in the Higher Education Group, any member of the COVID-19 Strategy Team or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.