Veterans Affairs officials are confident that class disruptions due to resurgent coronavirus cases won’t cause significant challenges for student veterans and other GI Bill users this fall.
But next spring’s semester could be a different story.
That’s because a host of emergency authorities approved by Congress last year to deal with potential pandemic problems are set to expire this December. Without intervention from lawmakers, students forced into remote learning options by virus outbreaks on campus may lose out on thousands of dollars a month.
“We’ve already started preparing messaging for our students this fall to state that without any additional legislation, we will be going back to the way it used to be prior to the pandemic,” said Charmain Bogue, executive director of VA’s Education Service.
“We’re working very closely with the Hill in terms of any legislative changes that they can consider for the upcoming spring semester. We are hearing from some schools that because of the delta variants and a lot of the uncertainties, they will still probably continue in an online fashion.”
At issue are rules regarding how GI Bill benefits can be awarded to students attending online classes.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill awards tuition money for college courses, plus a monthly housing stipend and other payouts to cover books and tutoring services. Eligible students attending in-person classes can receive the full financial benefits as soon as they begin classes.
However, under rules passed by Congress, students enrolled in online-only classes receive only half of their housing stipend. The difference can amount to several thousand dollars a semester, depending on where students are living.
The differing payouts came into focus at the end of the spring 2020 college semester, when campuses across America shifted from in-person classes to online coursework in response to the then-emerging coronavirus pandemic.
VA officials did not have authority to waive the at-home payout rules, creating a situation where thousands of students were locked into rent payments for the year but poised to see their housing stipends cut in half.
Congress intervened, giving the VA Secretary emergency authority to override the rule and maintain current payment rates. Veterans advocates hailed the move, but the congressional authority lasts only until Dec. 21 this year.
Given the recent surge in pandemic cases related to the delta variant of the virus, VA planners worry some schools which have planned to return to in-person learning may be forced into online-only classes again in early 2022.
“We have gone back to Congress to ask them to extend [the authorities] further, and there is a legislative proposal that we’ve seen floated already,” Bogue said. “We are providing technical assistance on it, but they will need to pass it in a timely fashion in order for us to be able to make sure there’s no gaps from a student’s perspective between semesters.”
That could prove problematic.
Although lawmakers have been generally supportive of such fixes to GI Bill benefits in the past, both the House and Senate are expected to have crowded legislative schedules in the next few months, with annual budget legislation in need of passage and Democratic leadership focused on major initiatives such as new infrastructure spending and voting rights reforms.
Renewing the authorities could be tacked on to legislation dealing with VA’s fiscal 2022 budget, but a timeline for passage of any of the federal funding bills is expected to drag late into this year.
In fiscal 2020, more than 875,000 individuals used GI Bill benefits for college classes, with more than 75 percent using the Post-9/11 GI Bill program.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.