Washington Watch: ED’s updated COVID-19 guidance

Photo: Matthew Dembicki/AACC

The U.S. Education Department (ED) last Friday updated its March 5 COVID-19 guidance, which addresses numerous student financial aid and other important areas for the current award year. However, it doesn’t address many related questions raised by the recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

For example, colleges and their students will have to wait for the department to announce its formula for funding institutions under the Emergency Stabilization Fund and when it will release the funds. It also remains unknown how ED will distribute additional funding for Titles III and V institutions.

Below are the key issues for community colleges under the new guidance.

Distance education

The department reiterates its broad approval to institutions to offer distance education without first having to go through the standard ED approval process. ED maintains that this policy is only in effect temporarily, for payment periods that overlap with the March 5 guidance, or begin on or between March 5 and June 1, 2020. “If an institution chooses to continue offering a new program or using distance education in a manner requiring the department’s approval after that point, it may be required to obtain approval under the department’s and its accrediting agency’s applicable policies and procedures,” according to ED. 

The department continues to permit accrediting agencies to waive their distance education review requirements for now, but encourages them to develop new policies and procedures for facilitating the rapid approval of distance education programs. ED also wants institutions to review the recent FERPA and virtual learning-related resources guidance to ensure that they are in compliance. 

Serving students with disabilities

Several college administrators have raised questions about how to best continue serving students with disabilities as they scramble to convert classroom-taught programs to distance education. The department’s guidance concerning compliance with the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, recognizes the challenges colleges face. Institutions are told they “should not decline to provide distance education instruction, at the expenses of most students, to address matters pertaining to accommodations for students with disabilities.”

Nonetheless, colleges must continue to make efforts to accommodate students with disabilities and consult with the department’s Office for Civil Rights for more information.

Return of Title IV Funds

The CARES Act makes several significant changes to the return of Title IV funds. ED is reviewing these changes before offering guidance. 

Academic year

The department is authorized to approve a reduced academic year if the college “offering credit-hour programs is unable to offer at least 30 hours of instruction during its academic year.” Colleges must email notification to the department (CaseTeams@ed.gov) of changes to the academic year. It is important to note that colleges that decide to temporarily close because of COVID-19 will not lose their institutional eligibility.

The Clery Act

The Clery Act requires institutions to notify the campus community about “significant emergency or dangerous situations involving an immediate threat to the health and safety of students or staff occurring on campus.” ED does not interpret the law to require colleges to provide regular updates about the pandemic nor about specific cases in the community. ED does provide examples of how colleges can meet the requirements in this EA.

Need analysis

Emergency aid provided to students (or their families) from the state or federal government is not counted as income for purposes of calculating a family’s expected family contribution to determine financial aid eligibility.

Professional judgment

The department encourages student financial administrators to use professional judgment to make adjustments on a case-by-case basis to a student’s cost of attendance to account for a student’s new financial situation. Financial aid administrators must retain documentation on any adjustments to a student’s financial needs.

Satisfactory academic progress

Colleges may exclude from the calculation of satisfactory academic progress any attempted credits that were not completed by a student due to the COVID-19 crisis.


ED’s April 3 guidance provides some relief for the completion of verification for students and institutions. Specifically, for students whose financial aid applications have been flagged as V4 or V5, requiring additional documentation to be provided to the financial aid office, ED has suspended the in-person submission or notarized document requirement. Documents may instead be submitted via email or via the college’s portal. Colleges must ensure that they meet the requirements of encryption/security of electronically submitted documents. 

The department also will allow colleges to accept expired forms of identification under certain circumstances and will not require colleges to collect a parent’s signature to verify the number in the household and the number enrolled in college if the dependent student’s parents are unavailable. 

Federal student loans

The CARES Act provides for an interest reprieve on student loans held by the federal government until September 30. The CARES Act also requires the department to cease collection of defaulted loans, including wage garnishment and IRS offset, until September 30.

Federal Work-Study (FWS) 

ED elaborates on earlier guidance that allowed FWS students to receive these funds even if they were unable to work their scheduled hours or perform their work due to COVID-19. This is conditioned on the institution continuing to provide educational services and paying its faculty and staff. The CARES Act also provides additional flexibility to institutions to provide emergency grants using their remaining Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) funds to students who would have otherwise received FWS wages had they started their jobs prior to the national emergency. 

The department plans to issue additional guidance about the CARES Act as well as frequently asked questions. 

Next steps

The American Association of Community Colleges continues to work on implementation issues related to the CARES Act and to advocate for more resources for community colleges in future stimulus legislation.

About the Author

Laurie Quarles
is a legislative resource associate at the American Association of Community Colleges.