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Judge clears way for FHDA to distribute federal COVID-19 relief

Foothill and De Anza colleges are now able to more freely distribute federal COVID-19 relief funds to students in need, thanks to a recent order by a federal judge.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction June 17 in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, brought by the chancellor of California Community Colleges and joined by the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

The injunction stops the federal education department from restricting which students can receive funds Congress set aside for direct student assistance in the CARES Act. Education department officials had said that only students eligible for federal financial aid could receive the money. That excludes undocumented students, among other groups.

The injunction “really feels like a win,” Foothill College President Thuy Thi Nguyen said, because it means her college can immediately begin distributing the funds to any student who has been financially impacted by the pandemic, regardless of their eligibility for federal financial aid.

Similarly, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a statement that the “ruling is good news for all students who have been denied the assistance that Congress intended for them during this public health crisis.”

However, the lawsuit is not yet resolved, with the injunction allowing colleges to distribute the emergency aid while the case is being adjudicated. The federal education department also has indicated that it plans to appeal the injunction.

“Two federal judges in the same circuit are split on this issue, and we fully expect to prevail on appeal,” press secretary Angela Morabito said in a statement.

Disbursing the funds

Although the case itself is yet to be decided, Nguyen said the injunction has already had a big impact. Foothill received $1.2 million in federal CARES Act funds for students, but when the lawsuit was filed, the college had only distributed approximately $24,000, with no more than 90 students receiving aid.

Thanks to the injunction, Nguyen said more than 1,100 students have received federal money, totaling approximately $544,000, as of June 25. Foothill plans to distribute more money in the coming weeks and over the course of the summer and fall quarters.

“The point of the lawsuit is that we believe Congress’ intent was to give the colleges flexibility to support all students affected,” Nguyen said. “And so, the ability for us to do that was huge.”

Limiting support to students eligible for federal financial aid excludes various groups, including undocumented students, those without a high school diploma or equivalent, and those who are in default on a federal student loan.

On a practical level, it meant students needed to have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to prove they are eligible, Nguyen said. And many community college students haven’t filled out the FAFSA.

Before the injunction, the college was using money raised by the Foothill-De Anza Foundation to support students during the crisis. Foundation funds are still being used to cover needs that aren’t eligible for federal aid, such as child care and medical expenses.

In total, more than 750 students have been supported using roughly $187,000 in foundation funds. That exceeds the original $150,000 budget, and the foundation is continuing to raise money through private donations.

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