Senate Bill 3503, designed to protect GI Bill benefits against coronavirus lockdown complications (see below) was signed into law on March 21, 2020. Trump signed emergency legislation allowing student veterans to continue to receive the same amount of GI Bill benefits despite courses going online.
But it turns out that wasn’t quite enough. The original legislation protected students who chose to attend in-person classes but were forced into online-only classroom situations due to COVID-19 lockdown requirements.
Addressing A Housing Stipend Disparity
GI Bill rules usually pay a different, smaller amount of housing stipend for online classes compared to traditional in-person learning. Under the first Senate bill, students don’t lose their bigger housing stipend even though they are required to attend online-only.
Soon after the bill was passed, it became obvious that veterans, spouses, and dependents attending school on the GI Bill were losing revenue and opportunities in other ways. Consider the students who can no longer take advantage of work-study programs while a shelter-in-place order is running; these GI Bill beneficiaries need help, too.
More Help Needed
Enter the new legislation, passed by both the House and Senate and ready for the President’s signature; the new laws would protect work study payments through the end of the affected semester if the students cannot attend due to quarantine or other restricted movement.
But that’s not all.
The new law would also safeguard GI Bill housing stipends even in the event that a school had to close completely due to financial hardship over the coronavirus. That’s a very important step forward. There may also be protection, depending on circumstances and other variables, for such benefits even if the student is forced to withdraw from classes due to coronavirus.
This is an ongoing news story; these measures have been approved by the House and Senate but have not been signed into law at press time, that is expected to change.
Why Legislation Was Needed To Protect The GI Bill
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 created a situation where schools at all levels were forced to alter their policies and educational programs to accommodate the need for isolation and social distancing.
Mass gatherings like in-person college lectures, group instruction for physical fitness and art, film screenings, library research, etc. were cancelled and many moved to virtual communication.
Since the start of the outbreak, many executive orders and new legislation have been in the works to protect a variety of economic aspects of ordinary life suddenly threatened by the global outbreak of COVID-19 and the coronavirus lockdowns worldwide. Classes at all education levels have been suspended, switched to online-only attendance, or have been completely cancelled outright.
One of the unintended consequences of schools closing their doors and switching to online-only classes? Doing so results in a situation that does not meet VA guidelines for the GI Bill in terms of paying benefits to students based on their statuses as online learners or in-residence students.
GI Bill benefits are paid differently depending on which option you choose or how much distance learning you do in addition to physically attending class. Changing to an online only class presents some funding issues for both the student and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Or at least it did so until emergency legislation was passed to address the issue.
GI Bill Benefits Threatened By Coronavirus Closures
Students attending school on the GI Bill are generally paid housing benefits based on the actual physical number of classroom hours attended. Those in online-only programs are compensated, too, but at lower levels than for in-person attendance.
On March 11, 2020, Representative Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill created to protect G.I. Bill benefits for students who are or will be affected by school closures and other measures related to the COVID-19/coronavirus outbreak.
Specifically, the legislation would permit the GI Bill program to continue paying GI Bill benefits including monthly housing allowances at existing rates for these students rather than reverting to lower rates paid to distance ed/online learning students.
House Resolution 6194
H.R. 6194 was written to allow the VA to “treat certain programs of education converted to distance learning by reason of emergencies and health-related situations” the same way (for GI Bill benefits purposes) as “programs of education pursued at educational institutions” on an in-person basis.
Rep. Roe, who is the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, issued a press statement after introducing the measure, pointing out the need for such legislation to protect veterans and their education benefits.
Those who signed up as online-only learners wouldn’t be affected, but those who applied as traditional students and who are counting on their housing stipends would definitely be affected.
The text of H.R. 6194 explains, “…under current law, courses must be specifically approved for online learning in order to qualify for GI Bill payments.”
According to Phil Roe, “No student veteran, dependent, or spouse should be worried about their GI Bill benefits being reduced or cut off because of a response to COVID-19 from colleges and other institutions…”
Roe adds that under the un-amended GI Bill guidelines the rules don’t provide accommodation for current events and requirements associated with the outbreak. “GI Bill beneficiaries at schools who are closing or transitioning to an online-only curriculum could receive lower monthly housing payments or have their degree program disapproved by VA.”
H.R. 6194 And Senate Bill S. 3503
A few days after H.R. 6194, news reports indicated that a GI Bill law to address the issues mentioned above would be approved by the President.
But it wouldn’t be H.R. 6194, rather a Senate Bill submitted by Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas (R) called S.3503. It was submitted on March 16th, passed the House and Senate, and went to the President’s desk on March 21, 2020 where it was signed into law.
Jared Lyon, President of Student Veterans Of America, who says, “This critical, time-sensitive legislation explicitly ensures student veterans will be able to continue to attend school and experience no changes” to GI bill housing benefits due to coronavirus countermeasures.
Differences Between H.R. 6194 and S. 3503
Under the provisions of the House Resolution submitted by Rep. Phil Roe, the conditions of the measure include the following:
“In the case of a program of education…” the text of the Resolution states, “that is converted from being offered on-site at an educational institution to being offered by distance learning by reason of an emergency or health-related situation…” is permitted under the Resolution to “continue to provide educational assistance under the laws administered by the Secretary without regard to such conversion” where payments of housing benefits, subsistence allowances, or other monies associated with school attendance under the GI Bill.
The measure is not indefinite under H.R. 6194. It expires Dec. 21, 2020 as the unamended Resolution states.
Senate Bill 3503 differs from H.R. 6194 in one important way; under the House Resolution submitted by Phil Roe, the rules are applicable to “payments or subsistence allowances under chapter 31.” But the Senate bill (signed into law by the President) states the bill is applicable to payments or subsistence allowances “under chapters 30, 31, 32, and 35 of such title and chapters 1606 and 1607 of title 10, United States Code.”
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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