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As federal government eases COVID-19 rules, Biden cites pandemic 'emergency' to cancel student debt

New guidance for federal workers from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, led by White House COVID-19 Response Team, follows CDC's loosened, updated guidelines.

Published: August 25, 2022 1:58pm

Updated: August 26, 2022 11:32pm

Even as the federal government is loosening COVID-19 restrictions for its workforce and the CDC is increasingly abandoning its more restrictive COVID recommendations for the public, the Biden White House is citing the ebbing pandemic as justification for canceling up to $600 billion in student loan debt without direct congressional authorization.

White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona claimed on Wednesday that the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act (Heroes Act) gives President Biden the authority to implement his debt forgiveness plan without congressional action. 

According to the White House fact sheet on Biden's plan, individuals making less than $125,000 would receive student loan debt forgiveness in amounts up to $10,000. As much as $20,000 of debt cancellation would apply to Pell Grant borrowers making under $75,000 annually. The cutoff date for loans eligible for the forgiveness is June 30, 2022, according to Rice. 

Biden has promised that a "short and simple form" would be available for debt forgiveness applicants in the coming weeks.

Under the HEROES Act legislation, which became law in 2003, the Secretary of Education has "waiver authority to respond to a war or other military operation or national emergency." The secretary "may waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs under title IV of the Act as the secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency."

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its COVID guidelines, abandoning its prior recommendations of testing and quarantine for asymptomatic COVID infectees and close contacts; the six-foot rule; and preferential treatment for vaccinated people, especially those who are "up to date" on shots.

According to the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force guidance issued last week in response to the CDC's update, agencies must stop requiring documentation of vaccination status as of Monday.

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force is "led by the White House COVID-19 Response Team, the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)," according to the task force website.

"Task Force members include: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Protective Service (FPS), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the United States Secret Service (USSS)," the website reads. "The president created the Task Force to give the heads of federal agencies ongoing guidance to keep their employees safe and their agencies operating during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Under its guidance, on-site contractor employees or visitors at federal agencies can no longer be required to provide proof of a negative COVID test solely because of their vaccination status.

While individuals exposed to COVID must "wear a high-quality mask or respirator (such as an N95)" and take other precautions in addition to watching for symptoms the next 10 days, they do not have to quarantine regardless of vaccination status under the latest rules.

The guidance also notes that the executive order requiring vaccination of federal employees is still not being enforced due to a nationwide preliminary injunction against it that remains in place.

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