By Amanda Menas
America’s public schools are the economic engines of tens of thousands of communities across the country, providing not only quality education for students, but also jobs and community-sustaining economic benefits for millions of professionals. As lawmakers pressed forward in drafting a stimulus package to address the COVID-19 crisis, it was clear they heard educators’ warning that school closures forced by the epidemic could bring terrible consequences for students, families and local economies.
Last night, the Senate by a 96-0 vote passed the $2.2 trillion relief package that includes more than $30 billion in emergency education funding. The House is expected to pass it Friday. Key provisions expand unemployment insurance for laid off workers, provide direct stimulus checks to households, and provide student loan relief.
“Our economy cannot rebound if we do not address the immediate health crisis and prioritize support for educators, students and their families. The bill is not perfect, but it does address many urgent needs of our students, educators and schools,” said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García.
Last week, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a good first step that helps ensure that the 20 million students who rely on school lunches won’t go hungry, and protects educators who continue to work to help students and families through this pandemic.
NEA’s government relations team worked night and day to ensure the needs of students and educators were addressed in this bill. Thanks in part to the thousands of educators who reached out to their senators, this new legislation builds on the initial work to protect workers now, and once this is over. However, educators will not stop here. In the coming weeks, they will advocate for more funding to address the homework gap to help with distance learning, housing and food insecurity, and student loan cancelation.
Here are six of the measures NEA pushed for in this current bill before Congress:
Provides immediate stimulus checks to households
Congress will send up to $1,200 to most adults, and $500 per child depending on family income to shore up those especially in need during this crisis. Many educators and parents will benefit from this funding, which will aid in combating the inequities that are negatively impacting communities of color and other marginalized people.
Creates a fund to boost learning opportunities for students
An Education Stabilization Fund was created to help fill emerging budget gaps, get more money into schools and the potential to help states avoid laying off educators in preK-12 and higher education. This could allow public schools to continue paying hourly workers like education support professionals (ESPs), and campuses to continue paying adjunct and contingent faculty who may lose paychecks with school closures.
The inclusion in this bill of an education stabilization fund was essential, but Congress must understand that tens of billions dollars more will be needed to truly support all students, counter the learning loss happening through school closures and prevent educator layoffs.
Cancels student loan payments for six months
Following the announcement that monthly payments would be suspended and interest rates dropped to 0 percent, the new legislation provides relief for federal student loan debt for six months. This gap will still count toward loan completion—including for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program — and provide some much-needed relief to educators and others faced with crushing debt. Individuals who receive student loan repayment assistance from their employers will also receive an income tax exclusion. While the suspension on student federal loan payments will aid many families struggling at this time, more could—and should—be done.
Additional provisions were made related to campus-based aid, supplemental educational opportunity grants, subsidized loans, and foreign institutions. Students who are unable to complete federal work study jobs or academic semesters due to COVID-19 may be paid and receive Pell Grants where applicable.
Legislation proposed by House Democrats could further aid borrowers and eliminate debt for those with federal loans during this crisis.
Expands unemployment insurance
Education support professionals and adjunct faculty are among the many groups who will directly benefit from the bi-partisan legislation forwarded by Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi in this stimulus package. Unemployment insurance will be significantly extended and will provide an additional thirteen weeks for laid off workers, including those who are self-employed and the maximum unemployment insurance benefit will be raised by $600.
Prevents housing instability and homelessness
As NEA advocated, Congress provided tens of billions to help prevent greater housing insecurity during this crisis by pausing action on any foreclosures due to failure to pay mortgages and providing funds for rental assistance. Funding will be provided to help minimize the number of people living in homeless encampments, to help prevent evictions, and expand shelters to alleviate crowding and reduce health risks for both people experiencing homelessness and outreach workers. Disaster Relief Funds, and grants for tribal housing were also included in the bill.
Educators across the country see that more needs to be done to protect students and school communities from the financial and emotional impacts of COVID-19. First and foremost, direct funding in the Education Stabilization Fund should be allocated to closing the “homework gap,” which impacts between 7 and 12 million K-12 students who do not have access to WiFi hotspots, connection devices, and mobile wireless service at home. These could all be provided by an existing and successful E-rate program, but telecommunication industry lobbyists got in the way.
NEA has advocated for the Federal Communications Commission to waive E-rate regulations, and provide $2 billion to help close the gap and provide funding for those in need. Distance learning is critical for students to maintain their studies, and the lack of assistance, especially for students with disabilities and those living in rural areas, is detrimental.