Biden’s First Moves for Education

Biden’s First Moves for Education
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on February 8, 2021

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President Joe Biden's first week laid the groundwork for how his administration could address two big education issues: college debt and getting students back to in-person learning.

On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order extending the current moratorium on federal student loan payments, interest, and collections to September 30, 2021. Before resigning, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos extended the moratorium, which was originally enacted last March, through the end of January.

Biden and his nominee for secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, are also addressing the issue of school reopenings. They say schools must reopen, but unlike DeVos and former President Donald Trump, the new administration does not blame teachers' unions for delaying the return to in-person teaching.

In addition to providing funding, Biden’s education team promises to work with the CDC to issue top-down safety and reopening guidance for schools.

Teachers' unions — crucial supporters of Biden's presidential campaign and well represented in his growing education cabinet — insist it's still not safe enough for teachers to return to the classroom. But a growing body of research suggests that schools don't actively spread the virus, and that keeping children home ultimately poses a greater threat to their well-being.

Whether Biden's push to reopen schools during his first 100 days in office includes high schools and colleges remains to be seen. Regardless, all levels of public education stand to see further financial relief. Last month, Biden pitched a hefty $175 billion plan to prop up schools' failing budgets and help institutions meet new health and safety codes.

In addition to providing more funding, Biden promises to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue top-down safety and reopening guidance for schools. By contrast, both Trump and DeVos refused to give any guidance, contending that school districts and colleges should make reopening decisions based on local factors.

Student Debt Forgiveness Remains Top Priority

Cardona, who was once a first-generation college student, assures that tackling student debt is a top priority for the Biden administration. So far the administration has granted federal borrowers another eight months' reprieve from the national $1.7 trillion student loan debt, which continues to set many students back for life.

Biden and Cardona both support plans to forgive $10,000 of debt per borrower as a pandemic relief measure. Cardona has suggested supporting the students who need it the most, echoing Biden's proposal to wipe away debt for "economically distressed borrowers."

While progressives have championed total federal student loan forgiveness for years, Biden has yet to cancel student debt with “the flick of a pen,” as Chuck Schumer claimed he might.

When it comes to canceling debt, the administration will likely wait for Congress to take the lead. But many students and graduates want bigger, better, and more permanent news regarding their debt. Progressives have championed total federal student loan forgiveness for years, to growing public approval.

Prominent Democrats have called on Biden to forgive the first $50,000 of all federal student loan borrowers' debt by executive action. But Biden has yet to cancel student debt with "the flick of a pen," as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer claimed he might.

Some doubt the legality of canceling debt through executive action. Even Biden says large-scale debt forgiveness must go through Congress. But given that Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote, there still remains an avenue for the Democratic Senate to pass student debt forgiveness into law.

Biden to Give Schools COVID-19 Guidance, Funding

In an executive order, Biden requested that the departments of Education and Health and Human Services provide data and "evidence-based guidance" to help schools resume in-person learning. He asked that the guidance — geared toward elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges and universities — include both advice and technical assistance for online learning.

The order coincides with Biden's $175 billion plan to reopen K-8 classrooms and bolster college finances. The relief package would help schools afford the safety measures educators say must be in place before reopening, which include reducing class sizes, reconfiguring classrooms and bus schedules to allow for social distancing, improving ventilation, hiring more medical and cleaning staff, and providing personal protective equipment.

“Reopening and keeping colleges open is critical … but it must be done safely, to protect the health of students, faculty, staff, and the broader community.” Source: — National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, January 2021 Link:More Info

Funds would also be used to give students laptops and internet access, and to establish summer school and tutoring programs in an effort to make up for the unprecedented learning loss experienced by students during COVID-19. A portion of the funding would be earmarked for grants for students hit hardest by the pandemic.

School closures and unemployment due to the public health crisis have been found to exacerbate existing education gaps. More white students than Black and brown students have the opportunity to learn in person. Black and brown families — who are at a statistically greater risk of contracting COVID-19 — are also more likely to continue learning online, even when in-person options are available.

Biden Reverses Trump-Era Ban on Diversity Training

In yet another reversal of the Trump administration's education policies, Biden recently reverted to Obama-era guidance to once again allow transgender students to use their bathroom of choice. He also rescinded Trump's ban on diversity and sensitivity training.

Trump issued the executive order against bias training in the fall, as colleges scrambled to strengthen their diversity, equity, and inclusion offerings, with many considering adding diversity graduation requirements. But the administration's ban threatened to pull federal funding if colleges required such training.

Now public schools, as well as all other government contractors and grant recipients, can freely move forward with diversity and inclusion training programs.

Feature Image: archna nautiyal / Shutterstock

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