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Watchdog Finds Education Department’s Return to Office Plan is Generally Good

The plan largely incorporates recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, White House, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

A watchdog found the Education Department’s plans to return employees to offices following telework during the novel coronavirus pandemic were generally sufficient. 

The Education Department inspector general reviewed the agency’s plans to return its 4,000 employees safely back to workplaces nationwide. After encouraging agencies to “maximize” telework, the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget issued joint guidance in April that gave federal agencies discretion and flexibility in returning employees to workplaces during the pandemic. 

“We found that the department generally incorporated available guidance, which was intended to provide for a safe and gradual return to federal offices, in its workplace reconstitution transition plan,” said the report published on Tuesday. “The department developed a reconstitution plan that is based on White House guidelines and [OMB] and [OPM] guidance. The department’s reconstitution plan, along with a reconstitution plan ‘frequently asked questions’ document, incorporates practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” 

The plan and accompanying FAQ––which applies to all locations and was sent to staff on May 29––addresses a phased return to offices, telework and other flexibilities, self-screening questions for staff and visitors entering buildings, requirements for face coverings, and social distancing and cleaning procedures. 

However, the watchdog did flag two areas for improvement. One is that department officials should update the reconstitution plan to note that employees won’t be retaliated against for taking health and safety precautions or raising related concerns, as OSHA recommended. The other is to revise the self-assessment questions and update the information in the plan to include additional coronavirus symptoms, according to the CDC, not currently listed. 

The department said it would update its plan accordingly. 

As of November 20, 10 of the 12 Education Department regional offices (which includes the headquarters in Washington, D.C.) entered phase one of reopening (in which telework is still widely encouraged). None have entered phases two or three. An Education Department spokesperson told Government Executive on Friday that this is still the case, adding that two offices are in the “gating phase,” which happens before phase one, and noting that the IG office is “making its own determination” about bringing employees back.

In September, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, launched a tracker to follow IGs’ progress in reviewing their agencies' reopening plans, as he requested they do so in June. The Education IG is one of the 16 inspectors general that confirmed it was doing the specific investigation.