President Joe Biden signed an executive order Thursday directing federal agencies to provide guidance and support for higher education institutions and other schools to reopen safely.
The order is part of Biden's larger plan to combat the pandemic, which calls for the federal government to help under-resourced institutions access coronavirus tests, work with colleges to conduct vaccine outreach and provide guidance on reopening plans.
The plan calls colleges "natural partners" to the federal government in helping vaccinate people in the U.S., signaling they could play a bigger role in distribution and education efforts.
The order directs the U.S. Department of Education to work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide evidence-based guidance to higher education institutions on reopening. It also asks the Education Department to consider colleges' settings, resources and student bodies when crafting recommendations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued reopening guidance for higher education institutions, but some experts say it gives too much leeway to states and individual colleges. Schools took drastically different approaches to the fall term, though many are ramping up coronavirus testing for the spring.
Biden's plan also calls for the creation of an information clearinghouse for K-12 schools and colleges to share what they've learned about operating safely during the pandemic. "These examples will be especially helpful as more federal funding becomes available and districts have the necessary resources to implement effective strategies," reads the Biden administration's 200-page strategy document.
The Ed Department recently released $21 billion in coronavirus relief to colleges, and Biden has pitched another round of stimulus funding that would give the sector an additional $35 billion. But these amounts fall short of the $120 billion higher ed groups have asked for to cover pandemic-related costs.
The federal government will work with states to ensure under-resourced colleges, such as historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, have access to coronavirus tests, according to Biden's plan. That may include invoking the Defense Production Act, a law that can force companies to prioritize the government's contracts, to ramp up coronavirus test production, it notes.
The plan also calls for the federal government to work with colleges to educate students and employees about vaccination.
Colleges have already been playing a big role in vaccination efforts. Several universities are distribution sites, and some college presidents have shared videos of themselves getting vaccinated to build trust in the shots among their communities.