When it looks like the U.S. has the answers to the pandemic, COVID-19 keeps changing the questions. Parents and teachers must now contend with the Delta variant as millions of students starting or preparing to go back to school. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says he is paying attention not just as a federal official but also as a father.
“I want to make sure that when my children return to school, I’m sending them to an environment that’s taking all the precautions necessary to keep our children safe and to keep our educators safe as well,” he said.
According to the CDC, nearly 1,600 kids were hospitalized last week with COVID-19. The rise in COVID-19 infections comes at an inopportune time for parents, teachers, and students who imagined that this upcoming school year would not resemble the last.
Despite the alarming numbers, the Secretary of Education is confident that schools can be — and stay — open and stay as long as schools and districts follow safety measures, including masking and vaccination.
“We know that masking works. We know that when [kids are] eligible, vaccination is the best tool we have across the country. We’re fortunate now to be able to have vaccines for students 12 and older and educators. So we know we can do it if we follow the mitigation strategies and we get vaccinated when we’re able to,” he added.
“I recall last year doing this without vaccines, without the testing availability that we have today, without the American Rescue Plan funds, to make sure we had what we needed to open school safely. So I believe we can do it if we follow the mitigation strategies and get vaccinated when we can,” Cardona said.
Recently, California and New York City have required all school teachers and staff to be fully vaccinated or be tested regularly. When asked if he favored such policies, Cardona said that health experts should lead conversations around vaccine mandates. Still, he is encouraged by vaccination rates among teachers.
“The more vaccinated, the better,” he said. “We have [almost] 90% of the teachers across the country that are vaccinated. Our students have suffered enough. They’ve been disrupted enough, getting vaccinated is the best tool. So when our health experts feel that it’s time to move forward in that direction, if that’s where they want to go, then I support it.”
Mask mandates have been another contentious issue across the country. Broward County, Florida’s school board recently upheld its decision to implement a mask mandate in schools and district facilities in defiance of Governor DeSantis’ threat to withhold teachers’ salaries and funding from districts requiring masks in schools.
The Secretary of Education says that the message he has been hearing from teachers and administrators in the area is apolitical.
“I’m hearing what I believe in — Politics get out of the way. Let teachers do what they do best. Let our educational leaders do what they do best … safely reopen schools ensuring that students and staff not only are safe, but feel safe,” he said.
“Politics has no place here,” he added. “In fact, some of the decisions that are being made are really putting students in harm’s way. We need to make sure that we’re giving our superintendents and our boards the opportunity to do what they do best, which is educate our students in an environment that’s safe and welcoming for our students.”
Cardona said it would be a mistake not to look at and treat the wounds within the U.S. education system exposed by the pandemic.
“My biggest fear moving forward is complacency,” Cardona said. “We have major gaps in opportunities and achievement throughout our schools, across the country, before the pandemic and the pandemic made them worse. My fear is that we go back to a system that doesn’t recognize that we have to do more.”
“Going back to what it was in early 2020 is not sufficient, that system left too many students behind; that system didn’t have equal access to college for all students. I’m excited about that opportunity. So what, what is a concern is also the greatest opportunity. We have to hit reset and the things that didn’t work in education,” he said.
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