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The CARES Act gives school districts more flexibility, but more could be done, expert says

Congress is working toward a third major COVID-19 relief bill including provisions tackling economic and education challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s a good start, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

But more may be needed down the line. Schools across the country are closed — in North Carolina through May 15, at least. While the CARES Act, aka the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, grants new waivers and spending flexibility to states, officials may need more leeway to ensure students forced to switch from classrooms to online settings continue learning as they go virtual.

“The regulatory flexibility provided by the CARES Act is a reasonable initial response to the pandemic,” Stoops said. “But the best part of the bill is what it didn’t do.”

The CARES Act, signed by President Trump Friday, March 27, doesn’t add billions more to the $13.5 billion set aside for K-12 schools, Stoops said.

Instead, the law grants additional waivers and flexibility in spending to states. 

The Trump administration proposed waiving testing requirements. The CARES Act codifies the proposal. Under the bill, states won’t have to test students on reading, math, or science. States won’t have to identify low-performing schools.

Title I is the largest program under the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA requires states to comply with federal testing and accountability in exchange for federal dollars. Title I provides money and resources for schools with a large share of low-income students. The CARES Act allows schools to use any remaining Title I funds for the next year.

The bill grants school districts greater flexibility in using block grant funds. As schools are forced to transition to online learning, districts can use the money for technology needs and other coronavirus-related responses. 

These moves may not be enough, Stoops said.

School leaders are still discovering what the transition from brick-and-mortar education to online learning requires.

“Once their needs have been identified, I suspect that Congress may take further action to ensure that all public schools can offer an equitable, high-quality online education,” Stoops said.

One idea is allowing targeted waivers for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA requires schools to provide a free education for students with disabilities that is tailored to their needs. 

While the National Center for Learning Disabilities warns against granting waivers to keep schools from complying fully with IDEA, Stoops said targeted waivers could make it easier for schools to move to online learning. 

“Many districts are reluctant to provide robust online instruction for fear of violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” Stoops said. “U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos should direct Congress to offer broad flexibility to public schools who may not be able to comply with all aspects of IDEA during this unprecedented time.”