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Betsy DeVos on Coronavirus: What Are the Feds Doing to Help Schools?

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for America's schools and colleges. Washington has sought to respond with last week's CARES Act, including more than $2 trillion in new federal spending. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has been making decisions about federally required testing, student loans, special education policy, and much else. I had the chance to talk with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about what she's doing at the department and the federal response to coronavirus. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: What is the federal government doing in regard to the coronavirus and education?

Secretary DeVos: President Trump and this administration took immediate and decisive action to support students, families, and educators. We created a streamlined waiver to allow states to opt out of federally mandated standardized testing for this year. We also provided clarity to states that education must continue for all students, including for students with disabilities.

We quickly afforded higher education institutions distance-learning flexibilities so that many of them could move to online learning; that likely helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 on many college campuses. On student loans, recognizing the economic hardships many are facing right now, the president set interest rates on all federally held student loans to zero percent, we allowed borrowers to stop making payments without penalty or without watching interest accrue, and we ended all collections activities. 

Right now, we're focused on implementing the CARES Act and the supports it provides. We're also continuing discussions on how to meet other needs. In particular, we know many students and families are trying to figure out how to become "instant home schoolers," and many teachers are working tirelessly to become distance educators overnight. We're looking at ways to support those unplanned roles, including providing microgrants to help disadvantaged students access learning options while they are at home.

Rick: What is going on with student loans and defaults right now?

DeVos: Right now, they're effectively on hold. All federal student-loan interest rates have been set at zero percent, and any borrower who is 31 days delinquent on their payments is being placed into an automatic forbearance status. That means they do not have to make payments on their student loans, and they will not be penalized or see interest accrue. The national emergency declaration gave us authority to implement those changes for 60 days. Congress has now acted and extended that to six months.

Rick: You've announced that students impacted by school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic can bypass standardized testing this spring through a state waiver. Can you talk a bit about what this means and how the waivers work?

DeVos: It means there won't be a statewide test administered in all 50 states and in D.C. this spring, as required by ESSA, since every state has applied for a waiver. Though there's no question that tests are valuable tools in measuring student achievement, the situation on the ground just doesn't allow for it right now. I wanted to make certain the application process was as easy as possible, knowing how much state chiefs have on their plates right now. We created what is essentially a "check-the-box" exercise. I think it's probably the simplest form the Department of Education has ever produced. And we have responded to these applications in under 24 hours. The waiver does not require a makeup test, though some states may decide that doing so is in the best interest of their students.

Rick: What do you know about what's going on with distance education? What kind of information do you have on this? Is the department tracking what's being done in districts across the nation?

DeVos: One of the implications of this national emergency is that students who never anticipated being distance learners, and educators who are only used to teaching in a classroom, are now having to figure out ways to keep learning going. This is an unprecedented moment, but I've seen and heard so many wonderful examples of folks rising to the occasion.  Educators are adapting quickly and figuring out how to reach students in new and innovative ways. You've probably heard me cite examples from New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado, and places in-between that have been impressive. But I must also say I'm very disappointed to see some school boards and administrators functionally giving up on themselves and their students for the rest of the school year. I hope everyone will figure out how to rise to this challenge and keep the learning going. It is more than possible.

Rick: On that note, we've heard a number of concerns about special education and remote-learning access. Some districts, fearing that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education, are nervous to provide any instruction at all. What have you heard about this, and what is being done to address it? Can you talk a bit about what the new guidance on serving students with disabilities says and means?

DeVos:  It's disheartening—and frankly not defensible—to learn that some districts have taken the posture of not continuing to educate any of their students out of fear rather than figuring out how to educate all students out of principle. As you know, Rick, students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education, and there is nothing in federal law that should prevent a school from offering distance learning. Think of a student watching instructional videos with closed captions or using assistive technology to communicate via videoconference with their instructor. A strategy need not be high tech in order to have a positive impact. If a worksheet is not available in an accessible format for a blind student, a teacher may provide that form to the rest of the class and read it over the phone to the student. We reminded schools and districts that they have the flexibility to figure out how to meet the needs of students with disabilities, and we—and their parents—are counting on them to think creatively to continue serving all of their students.

Rick: What do we know about how the free and reduced-price lunch program is working right now? How many kids are we talking about? Is the federal government doing anything to help out?

DeVos: As you know, the school meals program is a responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but I've been in close contact with Secretary Perdue, who is working to extend as much flexibility as possible so that students are continuing to have access to meals. I hear that communities are pleased with how it's going. I love seeing the stories about buses being deployed not only to deliver food but also to serve as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. I was also happy to join Secretary Perdue at the press briefing last week to announce new public-private partnerships that are coming together to help students across America.

Rick: What kind of conversations are going on at the White House about schooling right now?

DeVos:  The president is very supportive of our decisions to provide as much flexibility as possible to ensure learning continues for students of all ages. He also believes that learning can and should continue. The vice president is very engaged as well. As a former governor, he has firsthand knowledge of what states need right now.

Rick: Looking forward to summer and fall, what kind of issues are you thinking about? What information are you getting about the potential challenges that might arise from the COVID-19 disruption even after schools are able to eventually reopen?

DeVos: Everyone needs to rethink education, to get creative about ways to serve students—and that has never been more clear than it is right now. We don't know how long COVID-19 will disrupt our lives and we will undoubtedly face challenges again in the future. I'm focused on supporting schools in building capacity to be better prepared. I'm also thinking a lot about the current learning loss and how students can make up for lost time.

Rick: Can you talk about the CARES Act? What exactly does it provide, and how do you see these funds being used? Are there any guidelines in place or definite plans that you're aware of?

DeVos: The CARES Act is structured to provide aid at the K-12 ($13.5 billion) and postsecondary ($14 billion) levels and to target that aid to the places and students that need it most. I anticipate that each state will use the funds differently and I hope that they will put what's best for students at the center of their decisionmaking process. I'm particularly interested to see how the governors' fund is used. There's so much opportunity to use this influx of resources to drive meaningful change and capacity building, and I know there are lots of local leaders ready to embrace the opportunity. 

Rick: Just how much flexibility do the department and governors have with these respective funds? And how long do you expect it to take for the $13.5 billion in formula aid to make it down to school systems?

DeVos: We know that schools have urgent needs, so we'll be working to get that aid disseminated as efficiently as possible. We're still digging through all the details in the law, but it's clear that there is significant flexibility. In many ways, it's similar to the block-grant proposal we advanced in the president's budget proposal this year. That means local solutions to meet local needs.

Rick: You've also mentioned that the department is putting together microgrants for students and teachers. How can students and teachers apply for them, what can they be used for, and how soon will this money be dispersed?

DeVos: We are still finalizing the specifics, but in general, the microgrants are designed to bridge the pretty significant gap that has been created by schools being physically closed down. Quite simply, in many cases, costs are being shifted onto families. Our vision is for students to use these grants for educational materials to help them learn at home; things like computer software, internet access, textbooks, services for students with disabilities, and tutoring. We'd want to focus any funding on the most disadvantaged and those students with individualized education programs (IEPs), where that gap is probably broadest. At the same time, teachers are experiencing new challenges, and I am continuing to advocate for them to access the training and skills development they need to help their students continue moving forward.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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