Ed Review_5Feb2021

February 5, 2021


On February 3, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on the nomination of Miguel Cardona to serve as Secretary of Education.  “We’re here today in the midst of one of the most challenging school years in American history,” he stated in his testimony.  “For far too many of our students, this year has piled on crisis after crisis.  As a parent, and as an educator, I have lived those challenges alongside millions of families….  Our nation’s education challenges didn’t begin with the pandemic, but it has exacerbated inequities in our educational system.  These inequities will endure, and prevent the potential of this great country, unless tackled head-on.  And so it is our responsibility, and it would be my greatest privilege if confirmed, to forge opportunity out of this crisis.”  Next, committee members will vote on approving the nomination and sending it the Senate floor for confirmation.

In the meantime, President Biden announced acting agency leadership across the administration to assist in the next phase of the transition of government.  These individuals, nearly all of whom are career civil servants, are temporarily leading agencies while Cabinet nominees continue advancing through the confirmation process.  The Department is being led by Deputy General Counsel Phil Rosenfelt, who also briefly served as Acting Secretary of Education during the transition from the Obama to Trump administrations.

Also, the Biden Administration announced its first and second round of political appointments to fill senior roles at the Department.  These diverse and accomplished individuals bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the work of advancing critical educational priorities.  They will serve in acting roles in a variety of key posts, as the White House works to fill the agency’s roughly dozen Senate-confirmed positions.


Starting on Day 1 -- with a request to the Acting Secretary on federal student loan payments -- President Biden has approved many executive actions (orders, directives, memoranda, proclamations, etc.).  A number concern schools, students, and families.  Below is a summary of the major education-related actions. 

Also, following up on the President’s Executive Order directing agencies to address the economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department issued a letter reminding student financial aid administrators of their ability to make it easier for those who are unemployed or have received unemployment assistance to get financial aid for postsecondary education.  For example, the letter reminds administrators that they have the authority under the Higher Education Act (HEA) to engage in “professional judgment” -- a process that allows them to adjust factors that play into a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid, such as their income.  Moreover, the letter informs administrators that, at all times -- but especially during the pandemic -- they may set income from work to zero for a student or parent who received unemployment benefits, potentially making them eligible for a Pell Grant or a larger loan amount. 


Dr. Jill Biden hosted a virtual event on January 22 to honor the work of educators and school staff.  The President is “following the science and best practices,” she said, “and he will be engaging with educators, all of you, and your unions.  He has a national strategy for COVID-19 response, and safely reopening schools is critical for that plan.”

Then, on January 28, Dr. Anthony Fauci participated in a town hall with teachers.  “We’re not going to get back to normal until we get children back into school -- for the good of the children, for the good of the parents, and for the good of the community,” he said.  “We want to make sure we do that by giving the teachers and the teams associated with teachers the resources that they need to do that.”

Since the last issue of ED Review, the Department has announced more than $21 billion in emergency aid through the Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund and more than $4 billion in emergency aid through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund (state allocation table and fact sheet).  The latter includes $2.75 billion for the Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools program, providing services and assistance for private schools.  This funding is authorized under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, 2021.  (Note: Earlier, the Department announced more than $54 billion in emergency aid via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.)

The Department also released new resources to help teachers and school leaders meet the needs of students through creative learning experiences.  The Teacher Digital Learning Guide includes insights on using educational technology, promoting personalized learning, and embracing professional development.  The School Leader Digital Learning Guide provides suggestions on developing a digital learning vision and considering, planning, funding, implementing, and adapting learning programs to best serve and empower students of all abilities.

New from the What Works Clearinghouse: the most promising evidence about what works for learning remotely.  Teams screened 932 studies; 266 were retained for full-text screening, and 36 were identified for review.  Nine studies with similar design characteristics were meta-analyzed, and the results indicate that, on average, students in distance learning programs improved in language arts but not in math, compared with students in business-as-usual conditions.


Since the 2021-22 FAFSA form became available on October 1, 2020, the completion rate among high school seniors is down 12% compared to the same time last year.  This means that students across the U.S. could miss the opportunity to take advantage of federal grants, work-study funds, and loans to continue their education.  Moreover, since some states distribute aid on a first-come, first-served basis, students may miss crucial deadlines for state and/or institutional aid by waiting to file the FAFSA form.  The Department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office is urging high school seniors to file the FAFSA form to help defray, and in some cases completely cover, the costs of their postsecondary education.  FSA has made it easier than ever for students and families to access resources at StudentAid.gov and via the myStudentAid mobile application using a computer, tablet, or mobile phone.  Resources include enhanced help topics that present further guidance through the FAFSA form.  Plus, skip-logic functionality ensures applicants see only the questions that pertain to them.  To see how many high school seniors have submitted and completed a FAFSA form by high school, visit the FSA Data Center. 


Last month, the Department announced 95 finalists in the Rethink Adult Ed Challenge, a $750,000 competition to advance pre-apprenticeships.  Many adult learners face barriers to accessing apprenticeships, even though these programs can serve as pathways into meaningful careers.  Pre-apprenticeships can break down these barriers by equipping adult learners with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in apprenticeships. 

The challenge received 203 submissions from across a broad range of industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, and technology.  Entrants represented 44 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Guam.  The review panel -- composed of experts in adult education, social services, workforce policy, and more -- selected 95 finalists to advance to Stage 2 and compete for prizes.

The second stage will run from February to July 2021.  During this time, finalists will have access to a variety of digital resources, including webinars with subject matter experts, to help them develop more detailed program proposals.  A judging panel will review the proposals and select one grand prize winner (awarded $250,000) and up to five runners up (awarded $100,000 each).  (Note: At the conclusion of this challenge, the Department will adapt and publish materials so that the wider community may benefit.)


  • ·       Also last month, the Department announced a College Scorecard update, providing students with information on how well borrowers from individual institutions are progressing in repaying federal student loans, as well as how overall borrower cohorts are faring at intervals in the repayment process.
  • ·       The Department published the list of candidates for the 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, which honors some of the nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors.
  • ·       The Department’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) released 13 leverage briefs to address state and local efforts to attract, prepare, and retain effective personnel to serve students with disabilities.  The briefs highlight strategies that emerged during OSEP’s two-year focus on improving the pipeline for personnel.  The introduction features resources and links to all activities.
  • ·       A First Look report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) describes outcomes of 2007-08 bachelor’s degree recipients in 2018 -- about 10 years after graduation -- including financial well-being, student loan borrowing and repayment, postbaccalaureate enrollment, employment history, earnings, job characteristics, and teaching status.
  • ·       Separately, Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Director Mark Schneider issued a blog, “A Year for Reflection and Continued Transformation,” explaining what IES has planned for the year (anticipating its 20th anniversary in 2022).
  • ·       There is still time to register for NASA’s Mission to Mars Student Challenge, which culminates on February 18 when students can land their missions along with the Perseverance Mars rover.
  • ·       The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) launched a Reduce the Risk of Ransomware campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of ransomware among schools and other organizations that hackers have particularly targeted.
  • ·       A new fact sheet from the Department of Veterans Affairs offers support for GI Bill users navigating the impact of COVID-19.


“Every student in America deserves a high-quality education in a safe environment.  This promise, which was already out of reach for too many, has been further threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic.  School and higher education administrators, educators, faculty, child care providers, custodians and other staff, and families have gone above and beyond to support children’s and students’ learning and meet their needs during this crisis.  Students and teachers alike have found new ways to teach and learn….  However, leadership and support from the federal government is needed.  Two principles should guide the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis with respect to schools…and higher education institutions.  First, the health and safety of children, students, educators, families, and communities is paramount.  Second, every student in the United States should have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, during and beyond the pandemic.  Accordingly, it is the policy of my Administration to provide support to help create the conditions for safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible; ensure high-quality instruction and the delivery of essential services often received by students…at school [and] institutions of higher education…; mitigate learning loss caused by the pandemic; and address educational disparities and inequities that the pandemic has created and exacerbated.”

-- President Joseph Biden (1/21/21), in an Executive Order supporting the reopening and continuing operation of schools


Among other observations, February is Black History Month (President Biden’s statement) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month, while National School Counseling Week (February 1-5) spotlights the significant impact counselors can have in helping students achieve school success and plan for a career. 


ED Review is a product of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Communications and Outreach, State and Local Engagement


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