U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Friday that she would encourage Congress to provide “microgrants” to help teachers with online learning during coronavirus-related school closures and to help “the most disadvantaged students in states or communities where their school system has simply shut down.”
“I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident,” DeVos said, echoing an argument she has used to promote a federal tax-credit scholarship plan that would fund private school tuition and other educational materials.
DeVos, appearing at a White House briefing about the pandemic, didn’t specify the size of the proposed microgrants or how they would be used. But, after urging schools to continue providing education during the unprecedented closures of their buildings, she seemed to suggest the funds could be used to offer an alternative if they don’t.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said later that the “microgrant” proposal would target students whose schools have been closed for at least 30 days and are either eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or have individualized education program.
The grants could be used to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring, spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email.
“We must rise to the challenge of educating all children from all walks of life who are all of a sudden in many, many different learning environments,” DeVos said. “They are counting on all of us to find solutions.”
She cited New Hampshire and Florida as examples of states that have “implemented phased and tiered approaches to meet the needs of students in their states.” And she touted “creative approaches” happening around the country, like school buses in South Carolina that have been converted into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to serve in students’ neighborhoods, and teachers in rural Colorado making take-home packets so their students don’t have to rely on inconsistent internet access.
“We will also support microgrants to teachers, to help them pivot to supporting all of their students in a different environment than they’ve been used to,” DeVos said. “We know they are dealing with an unprecedented situation. It’s been truly inspiring to hear story after story of teachers rising to the occasion and meeting the unique needs of their students.”
DeVos outlined steps her agency has already taken. Among them: a waiver that has already allowed nearly every state to opt their schools out of mandated testing for the current school year, and other flexibilities related to accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
“We are using every tool possible to extend flexibility to states and communities,” DeVos said. “This includes funding flexibility. Where we don’t have the latitude, we are working with Congress on solutions.”
The massive $2 trillion stimulus package President Donald Trump signed into law Friday includes $13.5 billion in targeting funding for K-12 education, and it gives DeVos authority to waive parts of federal education law related to accountability and funding. The law also gives her 30 days to tell Congress if she thinks any additional waivers are necessary from the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act—the federal law governing special education—as well as ESSA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, in order to provide schools with “limited flexibility.”
According to Education Week’s tracking map, school closures due to coronavirus have affected at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools and at least 55.1 million students.
When asked at the briefing what he would say to children out of school, President Donald Trump said that children should wash their hands and behave for their parents, and that “some of them are very happy not to go to school.”
“You are a citizen of the greatest country anywhere in the world, and we were attacked like nothing that’s happened possibly since 1917,” Trump said, likely referring to the 1918 flu epidemic. “And we are winning the battle, and we are going to win the war, and it’s not going to take much longer.”
DeVos ended her remarks with encouragement for those dealing with school shutdowns.
“To our students, your educations can—and should—continue. Learning can happen anywhere, and we will help make sure it does. We believe in you,” she said. “To our teachers, we will support you and help you. You are doing great work. Keep it up. And to every parent and family, we know these are challenging times. But it’s in the face of great challenges that Americans have always risen to the occasion and embraced greatness. And I know we’ll do that once again.”
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill earlier this year. -- Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images