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DeVos Exploring Broad Waiver Authority for States to Help Deal With Coronavirus

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By Evie Blad and Andrew Ujifusa

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos could soon move beyond her stated approach of issuing narrow waivers to states tackling the impact of the novel coronavirus on schools from certain provisions of federal education rules.

As coronavirus-related school closings stretch on—some through the end of the school year—state school chiefs have urged federal officials to create an expedited process for waiving state testing requirements, as well as further direction on ensuring equity for students with disabilities in online learning environments. And on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education indicated that new waiver powers to address the impacts of the virus would soon be forthcoming.

"Secretary DeVos asked our K-12 team to work on broad waiver authority for the states, and it will be ready to be pushed out to education leaders in the coming days," said Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. She did not specify what exactly this waiver authority would cover.

DeVos released guidance March 12 that said the Education Department would consider a "targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances."

But amid the closures and disruptions to schools, the testing requirements included in the Every Student Succeeds Act have often taken a backseat to urgent concerns about feeding low-income students who rely on school meals, quickly adjusting graduation requirements to fit the new reality, and quickly standing up online learning strategies, Council of Chief State School Officers Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller said Wednesday.

"We are just in unprecedented times, and we need to make sure [state tests] maintain their validity and credibility in the future," Moffat Miller said in a conference call with reporters. "We are not saying that assessments don't matter. We are just saying that this is a time to focus on the safety and well-being of the kids."

Changing Realities

Many state chiefs have already cancelled scheduled standardized tests, anticipating schools would either miss the scheduled testing window as they close to contain spread of the coronavirus or that they won't have time to prepare students after an extended period of home schooling and online learning. CCSSO has pushed for a fast, simple federal process to take those tests off of the table, Moffat Miller said.

Some states already have sought such waivers.

Other guidance released that day said that, under federal special education laws, if schools "continue to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure" through activities like distance learning and online programs, they they must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities.

But that guidance was drafted when there was a much smaller number of closed schools with typical planned closures lasting two weeks.

In the time since, 39 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have closed all of their schools. On Tuesday, Kansas became the first to close its buildings for the remainder of the school year, and other state leaders have suggested they may follow.


See: Education Week's Map of Coronavirus and School Closures


Citing the federal guidance on special education and similar directives from states, some school leaders have been reluctant to offer any online programs until they can develop stronger approaches for students with disabilities.

"The guidance that came out, there is some interpretation about that being fairly limiting and causing confusion," Moffat Miller told reporters Wednesday.

She said CCSSO had pushed for further clarity about how to ensure equity and meet requirements related to issues like Individualized Education Programs.

"Our states are absolutely looking at every way they can deliver education, not just for students with disabilities, but for all of our students," Moffat Miller said.

Cascading Consequences

State leaders are holding twice-weekly conference calls to compare approaches, CCSSO said, and they are sharing approaches to communicating with families and continuing education. Some of those issues may require further guidance from federal officials.

Among the other issues most state chiefs are wrestling with:

  • How to adapt graduation requirements to ensure that seniors are able to receive a diploma, even if they never return to a physical classroom.
  • How to serve students without reliable internet access at home. Moffat Miller pointed to creative approaches, like a county in Utah that plans to convert school buses into WiFi hotspots and drive them into students' neighborhoods. And some federal lawmakers have pushed the Federal Communications Commission to allow federal funds for education technology to be more easily spent for internet access in community settings.
  • How to provide school meals under unprecedented circumstances. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has waived some school meal requirements, allowing schools to distribute "grab and go" school meals. To serve families without transportation, some districts have driven busloads of meals into neighborhoods for distribution. But regulations still trip them up, Moffat Miller said. For example, regulations require schools to give meals to students, but some medically vulnerable children must stay in their houses and send parents out to retrieve food for them, she said.

There will likely be unforeseen questions about state and federal regulations and accountability even as students return to classrooms, Moffat Miller said.

"We know the cascading consequences of this crisis won't go away when the virus stops," she said.

Photo: Justin Luce, left, gets homework packets for children who are in kindergarten and the fourth grade at Roosevelt Elementary from substitute teacher Jennifer Quantock, front right, as school ends for the day on March 16. Washington officials say schools will be closed for at least six weeks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. --Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review via AP


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