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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington colleges can give coronavirus aid to more students, Spokane judge rules

The doorway of the Review Tower frames the Thomas Foley Federal Courthouse in this April 2010 photo.   (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

Washington’s colleges and universities may use their federal coronavirus financial aid to assist a larger number of students than the Trump administration’s guidance allowed, a federal judge in Spokane ruled Friday.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas O. Rice granted a preliminary injunction Friday sought by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a case against the Department of Education.

Ferguson sued in federal court last month , saying that money granted to higher education institutions through Congress’ $2 trillion coronavirus aid package should be available to all students, not just a group identified in another law. That interpretation would have prevented students who are studying in Washington as members of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DREAMers, noncitizens who arrived in the country as children of migrant parents, from receiving assistance, in addition to other groups.

Some Washington colleges established their own assistance programs for such students and for others who hadn’t filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form.

Rice ruled that the act of Congress setting aside the money didn’t clearly state that the eligibility should be restricted.

“Absent injunctive relief, students will continue to be denied access to emergency relief funds to which they are likely otherwise entitled,” Rice ruled.

The Department of Education argued that Washington’s lawsuit was premature, and that the department was finalizing its rules for schools to provide assistance to students for housing, food, technology and other costs incurred because of the pandemic. But on Thursday, the department filed a draft rule limiting eligibility.

Rice’s ruling suggests that federal rule may be invalidated by the courts.

Ferguson called the decision a victory for thousands of Washington students who were not otherwise able to receive financial help during the crisis.

“The Trump Administration’s unlawful decision severed a financial lifeline to thousands of college students struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ferguson said in a news release following the decision. “I look forward to those students getting the help they need.”