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COVID-19 Federal Guidance FAQs

Below are FAQs that address federal “policy” questions (as distinct from legislative/funding questions) that the COVID-19 pandemic raises for research universities.

Immigration & International Travel
 

Travel Restrictions

Resource: NAFSA Coronavirus Critical Resources

Q: Where can I find guidance on international travel restrictions and the screening process for U.S. citizens & Lawful Permanent Residents returning from abroad?

Visa Status and Processing

Q: What guidance is available on visa status flexibility?

Q: What guidance is available on flexibility in visa and immigration benefits processing?

Q: What are the potential implications for F-1 students – will they fall out of status?

A: See COVID-19 Guidance for SEVP Stakeholders (3/13/20) and FAQ for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19 (3/23/20); ACE submitted a community letter on this issue on 3/16/20; NAFSA also submitted an inquiry on this issue on 3/15/20.

Q: For F-1 students studying abroad whose programs have been cut short, will there be flexibility on “full course of study” requirements?

A: See FAQ for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19 (3/23/20). NAFSA submitted an inquiry on this issue on 3/15/20.

Q: Will embassies and consulates in China and elsewhere be able to meet an influx in demand for student and exchange visitor visas in time for the fall 2020 semester?

A: ACE submitted a community letter on this issue on 3/16/20. See COVID-19 Country Specific Embassy Information.

Q. Are STEM-OPT extensions and OPT applications being processed?

A: USCIS has temporarily closed several offices (3/20/20). The service centers are still operational and processing applications and extensions. You can review USCIS processing times here . Due to some state shelter in place requirements, some service centers may have limited operations. In the FAQ for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19 (3/23/20), DHS says it is evaluating OPT issues and may issue additional guidance.

DACA/Dreamers

Q: What is being done about DACA renewals given the closing of USCIS offices to the public?

A: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it has suspended all biometrics appointments (3/18/20). USCIS temporarily closed several offices (3/20/20) but service centers are still operational and processing applications that do not require biometric screening. Due to some state shelter in place requirements, some service centers may have limited operations. USCIS announced that it will reuse previously submitted biometrics in order to process Form I-765 applications for employment authorization which should alleviate processing hold ups for DACA renewals needing to submit new biometrics (3/30/20).

Q: What are the healthcare options for undocumented students who aren’t insured?

A: USCIS updated public charge guidance on 3/13/20 to note that COVID-19 testing and treatment will not count against individuals with respect to public charge concerns.

Employment Issues

Q: For H-1B workers: how should we comply with Department of Labor requirements surrounding notice of employment sites (working from home); if work-from-home extends beyond 60 days, will it trigger the requirement for refiling the H-1B application?

A: Department of Labor: Office of Foreign Labor Certification issued its first set of COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions (3/20/20) – additional guidance is forthcoming.

Higher Education Issues
 

General Q&A

Q: Where can I find the Department of Education’s most recent COVID-19 guidance for interruptions of study related to COVID-19?

A: On 4/3/20, the Department of Education issued updated guidance that expands on its 3/5/20 guidance and provides additional regulatory flexibilities due to the lawful declaration of the COVID-19 national emergency.

This updated guidance addresses, among other issues: academic calendars (standard vs. non-standard terms); approved leaves of absence; enrollment status changes; distance education; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and, for public institutions, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act; foreign schools; various aspects of Title IV funding and other forms of funding; etc.

On 4/4/20, NASFAA provided a summary and analysis of ED’s 4/3/20 guidance.

Q: What are the criteria, and what is the review process, for ending the academic year early? Could an emergency declaration apply to a specific program vs. the entire institution? Will the Department of Education issue guidance to regional and programmatic accreditors?

A: The Education Department issued  Information for Accrediting Agencies Regarding Temporary Flexibilities Provided to Coronavirus Impacted Institutions or Accrediting Agencies (03/17/20), which suspends some federal regulations due to COVID-19 disruption to campuses and travel and is intended to provide both institutions and accreditors with flexibility regarding accrediting visits and for distance education.

There is a normal process for shortening the length of the Academic Year to <30 weeks that requires schools to submit a request to their School Participation Division. However, ED has requested that schools now follow these steps instead: 

  1. The institution should determine if the reduction in the number of weeks of instructional time in the term brings the academic year to less than 30 weeks. If not, no further action is necessary.

  1. Assuming the reduction in the length of instruction in the term results in an academic year consisting of fewer than 30 weeks, the institution should submit a request for reduction in the length of an academic year to  [email protected] , including the number of weeks that will now comprise the academic year (e.g., 28 weeks)

  1. The institution’s request will be routed to the appropriate School Participation Division which will inform the institution of its decision.

Q: Will the Defense Department requirements for ROTC programs be modified?

A: We assume they will be modified. It is not clear whether each service will need to waive requirements or whether DoD can do it centrally. One AAU school reported that it was informed by Navy ROTC that their program has moved online (including PT training requirements) and that other services are expected to do the same.

Q: Will there be any flexibilities under the ADA for schools transitioning to fully online instruction?

A: The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released a short webinar (03/17/20) on online education and website accessibility. Email questions to [email protected] .

Q: Does the Department of Education have guidance specific to civil rights issues in the COVID-19 context?

A: Yes, the Department of Education’s OCR put out a fact sheet on 3/16/20: “Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students.” The OCR also issued a letter to educators on March 4 on preventing and addressing potential discrimination associated with COVID-19.

Q: Is there guidance on how my institution should deal with the Census now that students are indefinitely off campus?

A: The U.S. Census Bureau issued a statement (03/15/20) detailing their procedures for ensuring an accurate count on university campuses despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the Census Bureau released a video advising college students on how to be accurately counted in the 2020 Census.

Q: What is the status of the forthcoming Title IX regulations and anticipated new HEA Section 117 “guidance”?

A: ED's final Title IX rule has been cleared by the White House Office of Management and Budget  and could come out at any time. On 3/24/20, ACE submitted a letter to ED – signed by AAU and many other higher ed organizations – asking for a delay of ED’s regulatory efforts on Title IX and Section 117. The letter notes that the issue is not the merits of these regulatory proposals, but rather the serious disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and institutions’ limited capacity to implement substantial new regulations at this time.

 
 

Student Aid

Q: Will limitations on the transfer of funds between federal campus-based aid programs be lifted/suspended?

A: We believe there will be some sort of relief provided in whatever ends up being the final stimulus bill, and also likely some flexibility regarding Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) awarding (potentially allowing graduate students, waiving the Expected Family Contribution-related rules).

Q: Will student loan interest continue to accrue during the COVID-19 outbreak?

A: Student loan interest will not accrue for the next 60 days and borrowers will have the option to suspend payments for the next two months. Department of Education press release: Secretary DeVos Suspends Federal Student Loan Payments, Waives Interest During National Emergency (03/20/20)

Q: If schools make technical errors in the administration of Title IV aid, to the benefit of students, will schools still be considered fully compliant if the errors were the result of COVID-19 response and support?

A: Even in the case of a disruption from COVID-19, an institution must return any Title IV funds for which it is responsible in accordance with the provisions of 34 CFR § 668.22 when a student withdraws. Currently, the Department of Education does not have the authority to waive the statutory requirement for the return of unearned Title IV funds in the case where a student (who receives Title IV assistance) withdraws from an institution during a payment period or period of enrollment after having begun attendance. See: Guidance for interruptions of study related to COVID-19 (03/05/20)

Federal Work Study

Q: Can universities continue to pay students who are no longer working due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Yes. For students enrolled and performing Federal Work Study at a campus that must close due to COVID-19, or for a FWS student who is employed by an employer that closes as a result of COVID-19, the institution may continue paying the student Federal work-study wages during that closure if it occurred after the beginning of the term, the institution is continuing to pay its other employees (including faculty and staff), and the institution continues to meet its institutional wage share requirement. See: Guidance for interruptions of study related to COVID-19 (03/05/20)

Q: Will the Department of Education waive the requirement that institutions provide matching funds?

A: ED is currently not waiving the requirement for matching funds for Federal Work Study. However, this provision is included in the House and Senate COVID-19 stimulus bills. The Secretary currently does not have the authority to waive this requirement, so it must be passed in legislation.

Clery Act

Q: Is there anything I need to know about Clery Act compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: The Department of Education’s updated guidance (4/3/20) includes guidance on Clery Act compliance in the COVID-19 context. Per this guidance, the Department does not interpret the Clery Act to require institutions to “give regular, on-going updates on COVID-19 or to proactively identify positive COVID-19 cases within the campus community.” Nor does the Department interpret the Clery Act to “apply to positive COVID-19 cases among individuals who are not attending classes, working, or residing on campus or to require notifications to such individuals.”

A school can comply with Clery’s emergency notification requirements by (1) providing students and employees a single notification through the regular means of communicating emergency notifications informing them about COVID-19 and necessary health and safety precautions, as well as encouraging them to obtain information from health care providers, state health authorities, and the CDC’s COVID-19 website; or (2) creating a banner at the top of the school’s homepage containing that same information

The National Association of Clery Compliance Officers and Professionals is also developing guidance regarding how the COVID-19 crisis affects Clery compliance at colleges and universities. In addition, Margolis Healy (a professional services firm specializing in safety, security, emergency preparedness, and regulatory compliance) has produced an “IHE Clery and COVID-19 Considerations” document.

Privacy Issues

Q: Is there authority under current privacy laws (HIPPA, FERPA, employee confidentiality laws/agreements) to publicly disclose certain necessary details about individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 e.g. where the person lives or worked on campus? The authority would need to come with immunity from sanctions for any non-compliance with privacy regulations for higher education institutions which release information in good faith to their students, employees, and the community about an individual or individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 in order to prevent further spread of the virus.

A: See Department of Education guidance here: FERPA & COVID-19 FAQ. The department held a FERPA & Virtual Learning webinar on March 30, 2020. All materials from the webinar, including a recording, are posted here. Questions can be submitted to [email protected].

Research
 

General Q&A

Q: Has the federal government issued any overarching guidance on administrative flexibilities for grant awards and proposals?

A: Yes. OMB issued two important memos to the federal agencies. The first memo, M-20-11 , directed federal agencies to implement flexibilities initially for COVID-related activities. In the second memo, OMB issued a follow up directive, M-20-17 , directing agencies to provide additional flexibility to recipients affected by the loss of operational capacity and increased costs due to the COVID-19 crisis.

On 3/24/2020 Representative Pocan circulated a dear colleague letter asking OMB to mandate implementation of Memorandum M-20-17 to ensure that impacted colleges, universities, and non-profit research institutions get the relief they need from federal grant reporting and administrative requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also asks that institutions be able to apply for relief on an institution-wide basis instead of on a grant-by-grant basis. The letter garnered 54 signatures and can be found here.

COGR has an excellent set of FAQs and resources on COVID-19's impact on federal awards. Much of the research-related information below has been drawn from the COGR FAQ document.

Q. How will agencies respond if local, state, and/or federal government employees are unavailable to perform their duties? (e.g. issue prior approvals or process awards)

A: COGR has told its members that they expect funding agencies will issue guidance in the event these circumstances become likely.

Q: What charges due to cancellations, school closures, travel restrictions, etc. can be put on research grants?

A: Varies by agency.

Q. Will the government cover the costs for canceled conferences and travel for PIs, postdocs, graduate students? If an individual is unable to return home immediately because of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, can their salary continue to be charged to a grant while they are awaiting the lifting of travel restrictions or the availability of transportation?

A: Varies by agency.

Q: Is there guidance from research agencies on grant submissions, management, extensions and allowable uses of grant funds (e.g., graduate stipends for work that can’t be performed) during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Varies by agency.

Q. How will agencies respond if federal research agency employees are unavailable to perform their duties (e.g., issue prior approvals or process awards)?

A: COGR has told its members they expect funding agencies will issue guidance in the event these circumstances become likely.

Q. If a research project is on a strict timeline and there is a slow-down or gap in activities (particularly where staff may need to work from home), will there be a possible failure to perform within the agreed upon statement of work?

A: COGR guidance - If the grant Statement/Scope of Work (SOW) timeline demands a precise schedule in order to make a scientific experiment viable, the investigator should document where she could not meet that schedule. If the SOW timeline requires a precise schedule to satisfy Good Business Practices (GBP) or to meet an agreed-upon schedule - but is not required for scientific viability – we anticipate agencies will recognize the unique circumstances and be flexible.

Q. Will agencies allow late proposals if a proposal is due and the institution is closed?

A: Varies by agency.

  • NSF: NSF will consider accepting late proposals. Specific solicitation changes: Impact on Existing Deadlines (updated daily)
  • NIH: NIH will consider accepting late proposals. Guidance issued, NOT-OD-20-083 on 3/10/20, notice posted on 3/26/2020 indicating that NIH will accept grant applications due between March 9 and May 1, 2020 through May 1.  
  • DOD: The Basic Research Office has encouraged direct outreach to their office on a case-by-case basis. Their FAQ document can be found here.

Q. Are disruptions to federal payment systems anticipated?

A: COGR guidance - Federal Line of Credit (LoC) payment methods generally remain active unless there is a lapse in appropriations. However, actions such as invoice approval may be delayed if federal staff aren't available. We expect further guidance is forthcoming.

Q. Where can I find new funding opportunities specific to Coronavirus?

Resource: Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Funding Opportunities Webpage

Q: Is the administration considering reworking regulations regarding the use of fetal tissue in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

A: There are no indications yet that such a change is being considered. Nearly 100 organizations and institutions submitted a letter to the administration, which can be found here, urging the president to immediately lift restrictions on federally funded research using fetal tissue so that scientists are not constrained in developing treatments and vaccines to battle COVID-19.

Student Worker Issues

Q. What happens to tuition payments on a federal award if the semester is affected by a partial or complete shutdown?

A: COGR Guidance - Institutions should follow their institutional policies on salary, compensation, and benefit, and apply any charges consistently across all funds.

Q. Will graduate students continue to receive stipends if they are not allowed on campus or in labs?

NIH: Students receiving NRSA stipends may continue to be paid for up to 90 days under NIH’s disaster policy, see also NOT-OD-20-086.

Q. I have received funding to support summer research opportunities on campus for students. Can I postpone this for a year, or change site locations, and charge these or other costs to the grant?

A. Please see NSF FAQs (starting from page 5) on Research Experiences for Undergraduates.

 

Medical Center and Hospital Issues
 

General Q&A

Resource: AAMC Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Hub

Q. Will CMS enforce an established relationship requirement for reimbursement for telemedicine?

A: HHS is announcing a policy of enforcement discretion for Medicare telehealth services furnished pursuant to the waiver under section 1135(b)(8) of the Act. To the extent the waiver (section 1135(g)(3)) requires that the patient have a prior established relationship with a particular practitioner, HHS will not conduct audits to ensure that such a prior relationship existed for claims submitted during this public health emergency. See Medicare Telehealth FAQ (3/17/20)

Q: Can Medicare fee-for-service rules regarding physician State licensure be waived in an emergency?

A: In addition to the statutory limitations that apply to 1135-based licensure waivers, an 1135 waiver, when granted by CMS, does not have the effect of waiving State or local licensure requirements or any requirement specified by the State or a local government as a condition for waiving its licensure requirements. Those requirements would continue to apply unless waived by the State. Therefore, in order for the physician or non-physician practitioner to avail him- or herself of the 1135 waiver under the conditions described above, the State also would have to waive its licensure requirements, either individually or categorically, for the type of practice for which the physician or non-physician practitioner is licensed in his or her home State. See full CMS guidance.

Q:  Given that CMS can’t waive state or local licensure rules that will allow our doctors and medical professionals to provide telehealth care to students now in different states, will state or local rules be suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: The Trump Administration has used its emergency powers to waive these rules for Medicare, Medicaid, and the Child Health Insurance Program. While the President and Vice President have said in press conferences that they will address licensure issues nationwide, HHS does not have authority to do so. Hence the solution requires action by governors.  A group of CFR have, in conjunction with their legal counsel and the AAMC, created a fact sheet describing this problem and proposing model language.

On 3/24/20, Secretary Azar of HHS issued a letter to governors asking them to take immediate steps to expand telehealth capacities by, among other things, waiving certain statutory and regulatory standards that inhibit the provision of care across state lines.

On April 2, ACE sent a letter – co-signed by AAU and numerous other organizations – to all governors asking them to take immediate action to temporarily suspend or modify licensing restrictions in their respective states to ensure that sufficient health care and mental health services are available to meet the needs of individuals in their states. The letter reflects the model language in the fact sheet referenced above.

The Federation of State Medical Boards has a chart of states that have waived in-state licensure requirements for telehealth in response to COVID-19 (last updated 4/2/20).

Q: Is there any HIPAA compliance guidance in the telehealth context?

A: On 3/20/20, HHS issued guidance relaxing HIPAA restrictions applicable to HIPAA-covered entities with respect to the use of communications technologies for providing telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Note that the guidance does not change the requirement that a healthcare provider be licensed in the jurisdiction in which s/he is practicing or subject to a waiver in that state.