HELP Committee Considers Higher Ed Reopening

On June 17, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) held a hearing to discuss the previous response and aid provided to institutions of higher education in light of COVID-19 and what these schools require moving forward to safely return to campus. The committee heard testimony from Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at UCLA; Dr. Reynold Verret, President of Xavier University of Louisiana; Anthony Harris, a student at Baldwin Wallace University; and Madeline Pumariega, President of Miami Dade College.

Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) both were in agreement that it is essential for students to get back to school safely come fall. Senator Murray acknowledged how federal aid has been helpful through the pandemic in allowing students all over the country to continue their education. Senator Burr was quick to bring up concerns of a lack of accountability within higher education institutions when it comes to receiving aid from the government. It was apparent across all witness testimonies that the end of COVID-19 will not mean that student’s need for relief will end as their needs may change but they will not disappear.

Much discussion was dedicated to prior COVID-19 relief legislation such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) (see previous COSSA analysis for more details). Of particular note, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) was cited numerous times as being invaluable for students and faculty at higher education institutions across the country. The witnesses who act as school administrators were asked specifically how they used HEERF funds to support students who have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. This led to a discussion of the importance of how funds have been allocated to help students not only gain access to the financial help they needed, but also the mental health services that became necessary during the pandemic.

Witnesses emphasized the importance of transparency and communication when it came to providing students, parents, and faculty members with information regarding guidelines and vaccines. There seemed to be a broad consensus from both Democrats and Republicans of the committee as well as panelists that it is not unreasonable to require vaccines in order to have a smooth and safe transition back to in-person instruction. While conversation shifted from federal aid to vaccine requirements, a common theme of the hearing revolved around the need to continue this monetary support past the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The witnesses’ testimonies and a full recording of the hearing are available on the HELP Committee website.

This article was contributed by COSSA’s summer intern, Lillian Chmielewska of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Posted in Issue 13 (June 22), Update, Volume 40 (2021)

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