ED Releases Additional COVID-19 Guidance on Distance Education Flexibility, R2T4, Campus-Based Aid

By NASFAA Communications and Policy Staff

The Department of Education (ED) on Friday released an electronic announcement detailing additional COVID-19 regulatory flexibilities, including those related to return of Title IV (R2T4) funds, satisfactory academic progress (SAP), and reporting requirements for institutions while extending the approval for distance education, among other things. 

While the guidance provides answers to several of NASFAA’s outstanding questions, it does not provide any further clarification on a major outstanding question: how institutions are to determine if a student meets Title IV-eligibility requirements (for purposes of receiving emergency grant funding) without having a FAFSA on file. Although ED's April 21 guidance stated that students were not required to have completed a FAFSA in order to receive emergency grants, having one on file would be the only practicable way for an institution to determine that a student meets all applicable eligibility requirements. 

Extension of Distance Education Flexibilities

The announcement explained ED is expanding the broad approval for the use of distance education granted in the April 3, 2020 guidance to include payment periods that overlap March 5, 2020, or that begin on or between March 5, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020. 

Campus-Based Aid

In accordance with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which waives the non-federal share of Federal Work-Study (FWS), if paid by the institution, and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), the guidance allows institutions to reimburse themselves from their federal allocation for the non-federal portion of FWS and FSEOG payments or awards made to students on or after March 13, the day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although the text of the CARES Act indicates that the non-federal share waivers for FWS and FSEOG apply to “all awards made under such programs during such award years,” the ED guidance is tying the waiver authority to the date of the national emergency declaration. Given this discrepancy, NASFAA will be seeking further clarification from ED.

Verification of High School (or Equivalent) Completion Status 

According to ED, since official high school completion documentation may be difficult for students to obtain during the pandemic, schools are permitted to verify a student’s high school completion status for V4 or V5 verification groups through a signed and dated statement from an applicant which truthfully attests to their secondary school completion. This flexibility is granted through Dec. 31, 2020, and is applicable to both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 award years. The announcement also reminds schools that verification of high school completion status may also be completed through documentation obtained by the admissions office. ED previously granted V4/V5 verification flexibility in its April 3, 2020 guidance, by suspending the in-person submission and notary requirements. However, that guidance is effective only through June 30, 2020, and is applicable only to the 2019-20 award year.

NASFAA had previously sent a letter to ED requesting verification and c-code documentation relief, including suspension of the in-person V4 and V5 document collection process. NASFAA has followed up with ED regarding additional requests, including the flexibility for schools to accept signed statements from nonfilers who are unable to obtain W-2 forms from their employers, latitude for tax filers who cannot obtain a tax transcript nor a paper copy of their tax return, and extension of all verification flexibilities to the 2020-21 award year.

Return of Title IV Funds

ED provided some long-awaited guidance on implementing the CARES Act R2T4 provisions, including effective dates and how institutions can determine whether a student’s withdrawal was COVID-19 related. For the CARES Act provision that waives the R2T4 requirement to return unearned Title IV grants and loans, ED confirmed that this applies to students who began attendance in a payment period or period of enrollment that began on or includes March 13, 2020 and who subsequently withdrew, including those for whom the institution may have already performed an R2T4 calculation and returned funds, in which case institutions are instructed to re-disburse funds to those students. 

Institutions that transitioned students to distance learning, closed campus housing or other campus facilities, or experienced other interruptions in instruction are permitted — per Friday’s guidance — to consider all withdrawals of ground-based students during the covered period to have been the result of circumstances related to the COVID-19 national emergency. Students who had been enrolled in distance education programs or whose institutions did not change operations as a result of COVID-19 would have to provide institutions with a written attestation explaining how their withdrawal was COVID-19 related.

NASFAA has previously asked ED whether, when calculating R2T4 in cases where the institution has modified its payment period start and/or end dates, the usage of the old and new payment period dates hinges on when the student withdrew or when the calculation is being completed. Stay tuned to Today’s News for further updates.

Satisfactory Academic Progress

The CARES Act permits institutions to exclude any attempted but not completed credits from the quantitative component of satisfactory academic progress (SAP), which includes both maximum time frame and pace calculations. The new guidance stipulates that, while a formal appeal from the student is not required, institutions must “reasonably determine” that the failure to complete the credits was a result of COVID-19. The announcement outlines a non-exhaustive list of allowable circumstances, including illness of a student family member; need to become a caregiver or first responder; economic hardship; added work hours, loss of childcare; inability to continue classes via distance education; and inability to access WiFi due to closed facilities.

The announcement further stipulates that if an institution temporarily ceases operations during a period of enrollment for COVID-19 related reasons, attempted credits for all impacted students may be excluded. 

This update follows ED’s guidance issued on April 21, which provided more clarity on how emergency grant funding may be allocated for students, specifically noting that students must be Title IV eligible to receive the funds. NASFAA anticipates more guidance in the near future regarding determining Title IV eligibility for CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) student funds and further clarification on whether students have to be currently enrolled to receive the funds.

While ED continues to address funding allocation determinations as provided by the CARES Act, Congress is currently beginning to consider another round of aid to assist in the pandemic. House Democrats have pitched their own relief package that would direct $37 billion to higher education, and are expected to vote on the measure as early as Friday. The Senate is still assessing what implications previous aid will have on the deficit before considering additional coronavirus-related aid.

If you are a NASFAA member, you can submit additional questions through the AskRegs Knowledgebase. Our experts will thoroughly research your question and provide you a comprehensive answer, including any applicable regulatory citations. That question and answer may then be added (without identifying information) as appropriate to further expand the Knowledgebase Q&A library.

Be sure to tune in on Wednesday, May 20 for a coronavirus-focused webinar, as NASFAA staff from the policy and AskRegs teams review the latest guidance. This 75-minute webinar is free and open to the public, but you must register in advance

For more information and resources on how the spread of the novel coronavirus is impacting student financial aid, please refer to NASFAA's COVID-19 Web Center.

 

Publication Date: 5/15/2020


Daniel S | 5/21/2020 9:53:36 AM

It's cute how the ED is drawing a line in the sand at March 13th, and presuming students/schools will not be impacted by covid-19 after the Spring. Just absolutely precious...

David S | 5/16/2020 10:1:35 AM

Well, it's maybe 2% of what I would've wanted to see, but...

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