The official COVID-19 national emergency is coming to an end, leaving some Americans to wonder what that means for economic policies that changed during the pandemic.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden said he intends to let the COVID-19 national emergency and public health emergency declarations expire in May. The public health emergency was first declared by then-President Donald Trump in January 2020, and the national emergency in March 2020.
The declarations spurred a variety of real-world policy changes affecting average Americans’ lives, including free COVID tests, treatments, and vaccines. In response, federal departments and agencies implemented their own changes to policies, like the pause on federal student loan payments and interest accrual, first implemented by Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
As the national emergencies come to an end, it’s not exactly clear how the move will affect Americans with federal student loans.
Currently, the date for restarting federal student loan payments depends on the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case tied to Biden’s one-time student loan forgiveness plan. Payments will restart either 60 days after that case is resolved, or 60 days after June 30, 2023, whichever is earliest.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the end of the national health emergency does not change this. Repayment will follow the same timeline outlined above, which is displayed at the top of the Office of Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) website.
“While litigation is preventing us from providing the relief needed to avoid these harms, we don’t think it’s right to ask you to pay on loans you wouldn’t have to pay were it not for the lawsuits challenging the program,” the FSA site reads.
What it means for the one-time forgiveness program
But some worry that Biden’s declaration will complicate the legal case Nebraska v. Biden, which uses the COVID-19 national emergency as the rationale for implementing the $10,000 to $20,000 in debt relief per eligible borrower.
The legal authority the Biden administration argues enables them to cancel student loan debt falls under the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students, or HEROES, Act.
This makes it possible for the secretary of education to make changes to the federal student loan program during national emergencies if borrowers have “suffered direct economic hardship.”
“Additional relief beyond the payment pause is necessary to ensure that affected borrowers are not ‘in a worse position financially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,’” the administration wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court.
That said, the issue in Nebraska v. Biden—the start of the debt cancellation plan—took place last year and has been stayed (meaning suspended) by the court. If the court rules in favor of the Biden administration, then the end of the national emergency shouldn’t affect the outcome, even if it occurs after May. If the court rules against the Biden administration, then the point is moot.
Oral arguments for Nebraska v. Biden begin Feb. 28.
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