On March 5, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released formal guidance for institutions regarding their compliance with the Title IV federal student aid program requirements in the context of the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19). The ED also has established a resource page for issues relating to COVID-19 generally, including links to public health guidance and fact sheets authored by the Centers for Disease Control. The ED guidance specifically addresses certain Title IV administration issues that may arise when a student’s program of study — including but not limited to a study abroad program — is interrupted due to COVID-19. The ED’s guidance is available here.
The ED’s guidance addresses how institutions should comply with certain Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) policies for students whose activities are impacted by COVID-19. The guidance specifically addresses several possible scenarios, including:
- A student slated for a travel-abroad experience has either had to return to the U.S. or was unable to begin the travel-abroad program.
- Due to the coronavirus, an otherwise full-time student has fallen below the credit hour minimum.
- A student misses class due to coronavirus quarantine or illness.
- A campus suspends physical classes in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
- A foreign school serving U.S. students and student borrowers suspends operations due to the coronavirus.
The guidance makes clear that institutions may temporarily use online education as a means to ensure continuity of instruction for students. The ED indicates that it is providing broad approval for use of distance education alternatives, so long as the institution is communicating with students through technology and instructors are initiating substantive communications with students on a regular basis. The ED is also permitting accreditors to waive their standard distance education approval requirements for institutions using such technology to accommodate students whose programs are interrupted due to the coronavirus. This would include situations where a student begins attendance in classes offered in a brick-and-mortar setting but classes were transitioned to distance education format in the middle of the term. Institutions also may enter into temporary consortium agreements with other institutions, offer non-standard term lengths or permit students to take a retroactive leave of absence, under circumstances outlined at greater length in the guidance. Other specifics in the guidance address federal work study, financial aid administrators’ professional judgment and discretion, satisfactory academic progress appeals, return to Title IV calculations, withdrawal date definitions, and NSLDS reporting. Of particular note is that the ED emphasizes its discretion to approve a reduced academic year if at any time an institution determines that it needs to close as a result of a campus health emergency.