UnidosUS Policy Team Weighs in on Bills to Help Students, Families, and Educators Deal with the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The following blog post is the first in a series of coronavirus-response stories that ProgressReport.co is developing to help students, families, and educators deal with the short and long-term impacts of the pandemic. Our next coronavirus post will focus on UnidosUS’s programmatic shifts. 

All across the country and around the world, the coronavirus pandemic is interrupting and even devastating lives. While they seem to be less impacted by the virus itself, students are among the most vulnerable populations facing widespread disruptions to their everyday lives. All students will suffer as a result of this crisis, but it’s especially challenging for those who are low-income, have disabilities, are English learners, or come from families of mixed migratory status. So far, EdWeek is reporting that 38 states have closed or are expected to close 74,000 public schools, impacting nearly 38.8 million of America’s 50 million K-12 students, nearly fourfifths of students. The website is pulling this data from school district websites, local news reports, and the National Center for Education Statistics 

Like many civil rights organizations, UnidosUS is advocating for those students and families and monitoring new and fast-moving legislative remedies for this crisis. Both legislative and grassroots efforts will be needed to shield them from the virus, ensure they receive proper nutrition and emotional supports, and, last, but not least, account for financial challenges and educational delays that could exacerbate the barriers they already face. ProgressReport.co will keep its readers updated as those initiatives advance. For now, this is what we can tell you about our response to new coronavirus response bills for students, families, and teachers. 

 Families First Coronavirus Response Act

During special emergency situations such as this one, the government sometimes authorizes the United States Department of Education to authorize waivers and other “flexibilities” to ease the logistical, academic, and health-related stresses for students and their families. This act allows for a wide array of family provisions, including paid sick leave and additional nutritional resources. It waives the usual requirements the National School Lunch Program by allowing meals to be distributed outside of the school or in individual settings, and it waives meal pattern requirements when there is a disruption in the food supply. It also provides $500 million in additional access the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), providing nutritional foods for low-income pregnant mothers or mothers who’ve lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis. And there are $400 million allocated for local food banks to increase their purchase, storage, and distribution of nutritional foods.  

“The Families First Coronavirus Response Act is a good first step because it attempts to mitigate some of the hardships low-income families will face during the pandemic, but it falls short in a few ways,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Kendall Evans. “Only parents who are caring for children whose schools have closed are eligible for 12 weeks of paid family leave. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide the benefits stated in the bill, and large companies with more than 500 employees are not mentioned in the bill’s language. In order to ensure that all of our families are safe and able to earn, these large loopholes need to be closed.  

Supporting Students in Response to Coronavirus Response Act

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced a bill to provide a massive emergency aid package that would provide $1.2 billion in education preparedness and support funding aimed at helping schools mitigate the risks of the virus through school closures and sanitation and $600 million to help early childcare and education programs do the same. It also calls for $1.2 billion in emergency financial aid for college students who may have to leave their current living facilities, reorganize child care, or seek medical services, and it stipulates $3 million for grantees in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network in order to offer social and emotional support for students, families, and teachers, administrators, and principals dealing with the trauma of this crisis. For higher-education students, it seeks “new flexibility” in financial aid by exempting repayment of Pell Grants or student loans taken out during a disrupted term, while relaxing repayment schedules for other loans to help alleviate financial recovery from this crisis, and also seeks to provide distance learning for American students currently on study abroad programs.  

This is a good start – students, parents, and educators are all grappling with the education system being turned upside down. UnidosUS would also like to see provisions in the bill strengthened that address the needs of immigrant and migrant students, English learners, and their families. These students are all to be accounted for under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the latest legislation mandating equal access K-12 to education.   

 UnidosUS appreciates Senator Murray’s leadership in crafting legislation to respond to the immediate needs of students whose education is being disrupted in such an unprecedented way. To continue to advance education equity for all students, it is important in this new learning environment to ensure educational technology meets the needs of English Learners and that informational materials are provided in students’ home language for parents,” says Amalia Chamorro, Associate Director of Education Policy. “And for purposes of accountability and transparency, we strongly urge that grant requirements under this bill include a provision ensuring the collection of student data that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity.”   

Here are three things that UnidosUS would like to see legislation from Congress address:

1- Sustain early learning programs like Head Start, which should be strengthened to meet quality child care needs of families once the current situation improves.

2) Increase funding to grow the capacity of Title I, II, III, and IV to meet the educational technology needs of English Learners and low-income students, in addition to providing social and emotional supports upon returning to school.

3) Ensure student borrower protections: Economic hardship will hit individuals with student loans particularly hard. A relief package should therefore cancel student loan payments, institute automatic loan forbearance, cease all involuntary payments on student loans, and ensure that borrowers in eligible repayment plans are still on track to forgiveness.